Black Mongoose
147 pages

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Black Mongoose


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147 pages

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USuzwe is an African country rotten with corruption. Its rulers systematically pillage the economy, rob the charities and drain the aid budgets of gullible Western countries. However, a group of citizens rebel against the poverty, food shortages, bankrupt social services, disease and early deaths and plan to topple the regime within a week - and their unsuspecting instrument is ex-Royal Marine Commando Johnny Strowger.Johnny arrives in the Kingdom of USuzwe like any other tourist, intent on enjoying its palm-fringed beaches, game parks and beautiful girls. But when his brother mysteriously disappears, he finds himself the object of a huge police manhunt. Guided by Ephraim and the beautiful Lindiwe Dhlimani, Johnny begins to destroy the political snakes of Kisingo’s regime, but at a terrible price.



Publié par
Date de parution 25 avril 2009
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781907461002
Langue English

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Paperbooks Ltd, 3rd Floor, Unicorn House London E1 6PJ info
Contents Jon Haylett 2009
The right of Jon Haylett to be identified as the author of this work has be asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available.
ISBN 978-1-907461-00-2
All characters, other than those clearly in the public domain, and place names, other than those well-established such as towns and cities, are fictitious and any resemblance is purely coincidental.
Set in Times Printed by J. H. Haynes and Co. Ltd., Sparkford.
Cover designed by: EA Digital
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
For Lizzie and Tom
I am deeply grateful for the technical help offered so generously by Cpl Duncan Stewart RM, Graeme Clarke of Sporting Services - - and Tim Steele.
I am also indebted to Lorna Read, my editor, who added pace to the book, to those who read various drafts and made so many helpful suggestions, to Tom Chalmers and the staff at PaperBooks, and, as always, to my wife, Gill, for her unfailing patience and support.
Black Mongoose Website
Much of this novel is based on fact.
For readers wishing to learn more of the background to events in the novel, there is an extensive website
which offers further information, photographs and links, as well as a regular blog, all of which we hope will enhance your enjoyment of this book.
One possible use of the website, which is organised chapter by chapter, is to refer to it after reading each chapter.
The Elephant Dance
They came in their thousands. They came from the coast people, their skin as pale as caramel because they were descended from the Arab slavers and the Somali who had drifted south over the centuries, or from the mysterious Austronesian seafarers borne across the ocean by the trade wind some two millennia ago. Darker-skinned dancers came from the highland forests in the west of the country, shorter, stockily built girls with black eyes, big breasts and lips like pin-cushions; and more came from the open savanna lands, tall girls with loose limbs, finely sculpted, Nilotic faces and fancy decorations that weighed down their earlobes. They came because they were commanded, because it was the tradition, because their mothers and grandmothers and sisters had come before them, women stretching back over long generations. They came in friendship groups, in circumcision groups, in age groups; they came by village and by town and by city district, smaller and larger groups depending on the region and population. Each year they came and, when they were summoned, they danced before their king.
For this dance, the Dunguntemba, the great Elephant Dance, they went naked but for a short, soft leather skirt dyed ox-blood red, and ankle straps that had taken months to prepare. The coast girls wore rare cowries from the deep-water channels through the reef, tiny shells that rattled as they danced; and the girls from the Lowabengwa river province had threaded semi precious stones, agates and obsidians and onyx polished to a shine; while the girls from the grassland plains wore garishly painted seed pods which hissed like angry snakes as they stamped their feet to the thunder of a hundred drums.
Leila and her friends, slender girls with high cheek-bones and almond-shaped eyes, wore beads, thousands of trade beads, each little bigger than a pinhead, which had been intricately worked into patterns that were the custom of her people: chevrons and diamonds, zig-zags and swirls, representations of the tribe s traditions and gods and the wild animals that wandered the bush lands of their home. And in Leila s year something quite new happened: two white girls danced, daughters of the contract managers in the diamond mines, but their ankle straps, set with precious stones, had been handcrafted at Chanel.
Each girl also carried a fly-whisk. These consisted of a short handle wonderfully carved by their father, or by their nearest male next of kin, made from a precious wood like ebony or, in the case of the coast girls, a rare dark wood that has sat buried for millennia in the mud of the deltas where it has turned as hard as stone. This handle, sometimes set with semi-precious stones, was a symbol that her guardian had given permission for his daughter to dance the elephant dance. Usually the whisk itself was made of the tail-hairs of a bull, often the father s finest bull, but, again, choice reflected the girl s regional tradition. Thus the girls from the savanna lands flicked the mane-hairs of a lion, perhaps a splendid black-maned beast a brother had killed with his spear, and the girls of the forest-lands whirled whisks of black and white tail-hairs plucked from a colobus monkey; and some of the more modern girls from the capital carried human hair dyed into a thousand colours, imported from Taiwan.
Black and brown and white together danced bare-breasted and proud, as custom and the King demanded, and their massed ranks, parading around the stock compound enclosed within the king s traditional palace at Gonwangombe, kicked up a dust that rose in mighty clouds thicker than the smoke from dry-season bushfires and, as they passed, the people who watched from grandstands specially built for the day raised a great roaring, like the rumble of distant thunder just before the rains break.
They came because it was the tradition, but also because one of their thousands, the one who found favour in the king s eyes and in the eyes of the Umkamkali, his senior mother, the one they call the Elephant Queen, would win a prize beyond all imagining. The mothers and grandmothers and sisters who had danced in years before had all seen a girl win this prize, had seen the King take her whisk and flick it in her face, had seen her seized by his courtiers and carried away shoulder-high to be dressed in cloth so soft and rich it flowed like water around the curves of her body. And they heard later how the King had lavished on her gifts beyond belief, jewellery in platinum and gold, a ring of Sandawana emeralds, a tiara designed by Asprey in London, an internet bank account with Credit Suisse, a 6 series BMWcoup , and a palace of her own with servants and a chauffeur and a fridge stocked with delicacies imported directly from Fortnum and Mason. In due time, they had watched her wed the King on television, on big plasma screens in the city bars and caf s; or on the older sets which flickered in those small town squares that had electricity; or they listened to the great ceremony on the radio, sitting round village fires that glowed like eyes amid the dark silences of forest and bush; or they heard it by the traditional manner, by whispered word of mouth, the story and the splendour exaggerated a hundred times in the telling. So they learned how the bride had been dressed in white silk, had worn a veil of finest tulle and shoes from Jimmy Choo, and how she had been conveyed to the King in a great, silent white car called a Silver Phantom.
Of course, not all could win this prize, but other fine prizes were promised, greater and smaller ones, many sponsored by local businesses. Some were as delicate and beautiful as a bracelet of Indian Ocean pearls, some as practical as a Timex watch, or as impractical - as far as most of the village girls were concerned - as a Bosch electronic washing machine. Leila won a prize, but her prize, a very precious prize, was to work for the King, so she did not return to her village after the festivities but moved to the capital. That s where she met my brother Mark.
Other girls won prizes of a different type of work and they didn t return to their villages because they found themselves in the service industries of Berlin, London or Rome.
And others still won prizes but didn t make it to any such exotic destination because their skulls were smashed with a knobkerrie and their brains beaten out across a white-tiled floor before any promise could be fulfilled.
Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Black Mongoose Website
The Elephant Dance
Chapter 1 USuzwe
Chapter 2 The Shuffle of Tiny Genes
Chapter 3 Zanela
Chapter 4 Greed and Corruption
Chapter 5 Running
Chapter 6 Trapped
Chapter 7 The Ultimate Sanction
Chapter 8 Snipers
Chapter 9 Lindi
Chapter 10 On Ganot
Chapter 11 Cobra
Chapter 12 Puff Adder
Chapter 13 Ephraim s Office
Chapter 14 The Shooting Gallery
Chapter 15 The Elephant Dance
Chapter 16 Black Mamba
Chapter 1
I, too, came to the Elephant Dance. I came all the way from Caister, a sad little village on the Norfolk coast which the sea s been eating for years. I didn t come with the intention of dancing - you have to be female - nor could I attend as one of the King s guests - as only very exclusive, upper-crust, native-born USuzwans are invited. In part, I was allowed to witness it as a reward for a rather nasty, if quite straightforward, job I was doing; in part because my presence at the dance allowed me to finish the business. Either way, I believe I am the only Englishman ever to witness this historic event.
My activities in the country had rather upset some senior members of the USuzwe establishment who, if they d caught me within the walls of the great palace at Gonwangombe, if they d managed to keep me alive, wouldn t have bothered about my human rights or any fine points of law. Like they treated some of the winning girls from the Elephant Dance, the ones that caused them bother by asking awkward questions, I d have ended up with my brains beaten out with a knobkerrie or buried up to my neck in the red African earth, but not before the local equivalent of the CID had enjoyed exploring numerous pain-points around my body.
I came to the land of the Elephant Dance, the African kingdom of USuzwe, quite innocently - if that word can ever be applied to someone with my history - to visit my brother Mark, who d been working there for a couple of years. I ll explain a lot more about Mark later, but the sort of holiday he d planned for us was the business-class version of a fortnight in Ibiza. It started well. In fact, it was going splendidly, with one or two little bumps along the way, until I met a mother.
Mothers, in case you haven t noticed, from the moment they qualify for the name, are hostages to the little maggots we call babies; squalling beasts that do nothing but demand, and only sleep when they re satisfied. I don t think most prospective mothers, and certainly not the thirteen-year-olds who get laid by some thoughtless yob on a Norfolk park bench on a freezing February evening, have the first idea what they re letting themselves in for. Even at that age, they ve no excuse for not knowing what s coming to them, particularly in a place like Britain where they can have it removed before it becomes a problem. So mothers are fools for their babies, and most remain fools, however big and ugly their brats become. But there are limits, and one of them, one I can t take, is a mother weeping for the death of her child. I ve seen it in Iraq and the Congo amongst the rubble of bombed and blasted houses, and I ve seen it in Norfolk beside burnt-out homes and on grass verges beside road traffic accidents. Children shouldn t die before their parents. It s about the only up-side to the deal, one of the few logical reasons for parents to procreate, an assumption that bears them through sleepless nights, brown nappy changing and oceans of puke; an insurance, if you like, so they know they stand some chance of being looked after in their dribbling old age and getting a decent send-off when they die.
Miriam, the mother I met, had been crying since the birth of her first. A bonny, strapping little lad, Joshua died within a week, the cause of his death no more than the USuzwe Health Service s chronic inability to provide even basically-trained midwives in rural areas. The hag who attended Miriam s labour, a so-called traditional healer, wore a filthy leather skirt and blew her nose using fingers that hadn t been washed in weeks. Miriam began crying all over again after the arrival of her second, Ephraim, a man whom I m privileged to call a friend; not because Ephraim died, but because something happened that was almost worse than him dying. I could sympathise with Miriam over him - my mother cried about me for much the same reason. But, as for the second child she lost: no mother should ever have to weep for what happened to Ephraim s sister.
At the end of my first week in USuzwe, I landed the job of driving Ephraim out to his home so he could tell his mother her daughter was dead. It was my brother Mark who conned me into it. In retrospect, I wish to God I d never agreed - aren t there so many things in life where we volunteer, and then wish we d never offered? But he asked, he d done me more than a few favours, I badly needed a break from the girls, so I did it, and it turned out to be a heavy occasion for more reasons than the bearing of rotten news. I d never met Ephraim before, so I knew nothing about him except that Mark said he was a special friend, very special, but I soon discovered he was a remarkable man. For a start, he lived permanently in darkness: he had to. For him to emerge that day, like a pink slug into the bright sunlight, took some courage. For him to go home, to a village which had rejected him at birth, required the sort of nerve I don t have.
Easyman Strowger, that s me. Easyman s not my given name - that s Johnny - but it s what they all called me at school, if not always to my face, and it summed me up very neatly. I was bright, I was sharp - everyone agreed on that, and, to prove it statistically, I had a reading age of ten when I was six - but I was far too lazy to do any work. If I pulled anything off, and I did, because my GCSE grades came out okay, it was because I could mug the stuff up in a few days before the exam. The other kids admired me, the teachers moaned, my parents despaired, I regularly swore I d mend my ways, but it didn t make the blindest difference. However, the reason I left school at seventeen had less to do with idleness than my temper. I was asked to leave by the Head after a disagreement in the playground that put a bully in hospital for a week and provided me with the start of a criminal record. Despite this, I could still have gone on to great things. Mum wanted me to sign up at the local college to carry on with my English, Dad had lined me up a job with his printing firm, and no one wanted me to go into the forces. Yet, as I saw it, it was a good move, the best I d made up until then: the discipline, the teamwork and, amazingly, the responsibility I was given, suited me. It s not that it prevented me from losing my temper fairly regularly, in outbursts that damaged both the idiots who got in my way and a fair amount of MOD property, yet I spent seven years with Royal Marine Commando units 40, 42 and 45, made it to corporal after five, had been told I d make sergeant and, if I kept going, might be offered a corps commission. But something happened, something that sent me back to civvy street, something that was my fault and for which I could never forgive myself.
I d hoped that fire-fighting for Norfolk Fire Rescue would offer the same sort of discipline but better opportunities and, in some ways, it did: good pay, good conditions, the same camaraderie I d found in the Marines, a strong union to protect me, a short working week and, when I came to earn my money, it could be fast, furious work and almost as exciting as Iraq. But I had too much free time, too much money, and Yarmouth offered too many easy distractions and opportunities for argument. If someone felt like a beer and good company, they knew who to phone. In particular, anything that involved fast excitement, I was your man, and, if there was a girl attached, I d be at the front of the queue. It was fun, I had a damn sight more girls than I d had in the forces, but it didn t challenge me, it didn t help me control my temper, and it certainly didn t bury what was in the past.
My next break came when a friend told me there was a job going in his outfit up in London, a job that paid megabucks compared to fire-fighting, a job for an individual rather than a team; a job where I could prove myself. They were looking for someone with a quick brain, pushiness, nerves of steel, and the ability to take a bit of punishment. The business specialised in tracking down and retrieving assets: abandoned wives looking for their husband s money, business partners chasing after the capital that their accountant had nicked, money siphoned off a company by a dishonest employee. I didn t do all the searching - much of that was done by men on computers - but the retrieving was definitely part of my job. I was good at it, nosy, assertive, pretty fearless, sharp and, when it was necessary, forceful. I discovered easy ways of getting cash back, methods that weren t necessarily legal, certainly weren t pleasant, and involved using some of the skills I d learnt in the Marines. I also made a lot of money myself but, far more important, I learned where bad money is kept.
USuzwe was my first real holiday after two years in the job. My brother Mark had been on a contract out there for over a year and his emails had been full of how the nightlife was unbelievable, the girls plentiful, pretty and loose, and everything so cheap it was embarrassing. Life was so excellent, he declared, that he didn t ever see himself coming home, not for longer than it took to say hello to the family. So, when he suggested that I spend a couple of weeks with him, I packed a gross of condoms and went.
I need to say a little about this place, the Kingdom of USuzwe. It s one of Africa s bigger countries, roughly the size of France, with the same sort of Indian Ocean tourist-type coastline as Kenya, a mountainous western border and miles of savanna plains between. To north and south it s bounded by two great rivers, the Lowabengwa and the Zimbandeze. Like so many African countries, it s stuffed with natural bounty - diamonds, gold, chrome, copper, platinum, sapphires, a strange mineral called coltan, which you ve probably never heard of but without which your mobile phone doesn t work, timber and acres of unspoiled landscapes including unbelievable, palm-fringed beaches, a wealth of wild animals and wall-to-wall sunshine. You name it, USuzwe s got it, and its development had been rapid because the country had been blessed with a government that had been stable and pro-western ever since independence. I noticed it the moment I landed at the capital s, Sosweza s, airport. It was brand new, emptily huge, immaculately clean, with girls strutting across marble floors in bright uniforms with spectacularly tight short skirts that revealed truly exquisite legs, and with immigration officers who hardly glanced at my passport before smiling and wishing me a good stay.
Mark drove me into the capital along a three-lane motorway that cut like a bulldozer track through miles of shanty towns, whisking us straight into downtown where wide streets and upmarket shops reminded me of Manhattan, except it was cleaner and there were even more bars and night clubs. Everything I saw in the first couple of days seemed to buzz with vibrant excitement. When I went with Mark to the bars and night clubs to meet his friends - and there seemed to be armies of them, businessmen, aid workers, engineers, people, like Mark, installing the latest technology in factories and offices, accountants (hordes of them, from top companies like KPMG and Deloitte) and bankers - they couldn t stop gushing about how dynamic Sosweza was, comparable, as a place to do business, with world centres like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai. Every time I asked one of them why - because, to me, this just didn t sound like the flyblown, heat-sapped, corrupt and regressive Africa I d expected - they all nodded their heads wisely, took a long pull on their Sosweza Slammers, and put it all down to one man: King Ndlovlana Freddie Mpureza II, thirty-six-year-old scion of the ancient but very up-to-date USuzwan monarchy.
What Mark hadn t told me was that he d lined up a job for me, if I was interested. So, one midday early in the first week of my stay, Mark wheeled me round to one of the high-rise offices in downtown Sosweza, one of those buildings that s all steel and tinted glass. It wasn t exactly an interview. Mark came too, which surprised me a bit, and we met a couple of pinstripe-suited USuzwans who worked hard to pretend they weren t the shrewd cookies they actually were, instead almost falling over backwards to offer me something I couldn t refuse. They laid on a gigantic buffet and spent their time urging me to eat more, perhaps in the hope I d become immovable and have to stay. The job was in security. Amongst other things, I was in charge of the twenty-three-storey building where the interview took place. But it was more than that. They wanted me to be pro-active, to look for trouble before it arrived, and do something about it. I could tell there was a hidden agenda and I didn t want to be part of it. I even suspected that Mark knew what it was.
There were other things that should have seriously bothered me, rather than simply raising the mild puzzlement they did. After the first few mind-bending days, when our time was spent almost exclusively in the presence of breathtakingly attractive and willing young women, things changed. In the afternoons, after he d finished at work, Mark would leave the big, air-conditioned Ford Expedition his company provided and take his personal transport, a dirty, beaten up, open-topped, short wheelbase Land Rover. In this rattletrap banger, we ground our way around the capital and into its outskirts, and, while there were some things which were a blast, there was too much I didn t like.
Most of Sosweza isn t bright, shiny, modern buildings. That s the public face, the international face, the face the tourists see, the face they show the visiting businessmen and dignitaries, the face on the tourist adverts back in the UK. Most of it is a fucking dump, a heaving, stinking, shit-filled slum. In England, if you d kept a pig in those conditions, the RSPCA would have prosecuted you. Once you re in these human scrap heaps, they stretch for miles, shacks built of tottering wooden frames to which are fixed anything that s vaguely waterproof; top end construction is rusty corrugated iron, bottom end is layers of plastic carrier bags. For every fat-faced businessman dressed in a pin-striped suit, there s an army of raggedly dressed, half-starved humanity that would give its eye-teeth for half of one of the cocktail sausages I d left on my plate at lunch. I think what left the biggest impression was the stench, and you didn t have to look far to find its source. Every street, every alleyway was both a rubbish tip and an open drain. I d arrived in a drought, the longest and worst Usuzwe had seen in decades, yet the alleyways still managed to run with streams of raw, yellow-brown sewage. I hated to imagine what it was like in the rains.
Mark did take me to some interesting places. I particularly enjoyed Bunyangi market, the huge open-air market which served the big slum to the north of the city. There must have been thousands of ramshackle stalls, and, at every one we passed, the owner - most of them women - came out and tried to flog us something. It was done with such good spirit, so much banter and laughter, yet ours might be the only good sale they d hope to make that day. One thing about the repartee really impressed me: Mark spoke the language with an easy fluency, and the ladies loved it.
As we moved between stalls groaning under multicoloured heaps of fruit, or laden with Indian saris, or piled with cheap plastic toys from Taiwan, or sparkling with Arab copperwork, or a paint-palette of spices from every corner of God s Earth, Mark stopped and turned to me and said how you could buy anything here, anything, particularly if you had foreign currency. When I laughed - it wasn t a nasty laugh, just a bit unbelieving - he became quite upset, and said to name something, something bizarre, something you wouldn t dream of setting out to buy down Norwich market on a sunny Saturday afternoon. So I said something stupid. I said, What about a girl?
Too easy, Mark said.
Okay, I said, what about a five-year-old girl?
Easy, said Mark.
What, buy her? I asked, in horrified disbelief.
Yeah, he replied.
Go on, then, I challenged. Okay, I was half pissed, but I wish to God I hadn t challenged him, because it was so easy. We went home that afternoon with a snot-nosed imp in the back of the Land Rover.
I can t ever remember something that started as a laugh turning so suddenly horrific. I know now why Mark did it, but even that doesn t help. He left me in the care of a whale of a woman called Beatrice with a bosom the size of two bolsters, who ran a jewellery store. Now, I did want some jewellery to take home to Mum and my two sisters, but I d been thinking semi-precious stones rather than the sort of plastic junk Beatrice had to offer. But I bought a load of it anyway as, if I hadn t, I think she d have either flattened me with a blow from the bolsters, or removed my arm just like you twist a chicken leg off the Sunday roast. About a quarter of an hour later, after an appreciative Beatrice had fed me a cup of tea so sweet I left my teeth behind in the mug, Mark reappeared. I followed him to a garage, a corrugated iron shed where a small army of men did everything from repair tyres to fit reconditioned engines. Round the back, he introduced me to Constance. Constance was five, and Constance, Mark announced, was mine.
I don t think I need to describe how I felt. I m not a paedophile and I m perfectly prepared to have a laugh with young kids if they re up for it. But this little waif - Jesus! She wore a torn and grubby blue gingham dress and a pair of ancient plimsolls with her big toes showing. Her legs and arms were all bone, knobbly at the joints, and her skin patterned with purple scars. But her face It was pitifully thin with big, round black eyes, a snub nose, buck teeth, and, plastered across the front of it, the biggest, widest, yet shyest smile I ve ever seen.
Mark took one hell of a risk. He, of all people, understood me, and he must have calculated that I d be horrified rather than angry, because he knew only too well that Constance was exactly the sort of thing that tips me into an abyss of black fury. As it was, I grabbed Mark s arm and dragged him round the corner, raised a meaty fist and said things like, You fucking little shit, you can t do this! and, Take her back or I ll tear your fucking head off! - all, by my standards, pretty controlled stuff - but it made not the slightest difference. He d paid just under thirty quid for her and the uncle who d sold her would be miles away by now.
Anyway, he said, she was an AIDS orphan and whatever I did with her would be better than the misery she d come from. At least, Mark said, you ll probably feed her.
So Constance went home with us, via a market stall where I bought her a new dress, some underwear with daisies on it, and a pair of pink trainers she cried over. And she stayed for tea, but after she d eaten enough biscuits and fruit cake to make a hippo pop, Mark and I stuck her back in the Land Rover and drove her round to an orphanage he knew. I paid - he made bloody sure I paid - two years keep in advance.
That rollercoaster of highs and lows in the first few days in USuzwe lasted until the moment Ephraim and I jolted our way along the broken road that took us the last few miles to Kibonane, the village where Ephraim s mother lived. After that, my whole life lurched again from a far bigger shock than anything that had happened in the corps, because, as we were pitched back and forth in Mark s battered Land Rover, Ephraim began to tell me how his sister had died. The unexpectedness, the suddenness of his story, a story from a man I d only just met, and the sheer horror of what he described, all told in a flat, unemotional monotone, appalled me. It was as if I d breezed round a corner and walked straight into a fucking great sheet of toughened glass.
She d been murdered, not down some dark alleyway in one of Sosweza s stinking shanty towns but at one of the King s palaces. They d started by binding her wrists with sisal twine, so tight they bled, before dragging her into a shower room and beating her until her blood ran across the tiles and trickled down the drains. When she hadn t co-operated, they d gone on to do indescribable things to her lovely body, things so bestial they defy description. After that, they d dragged her bruised and invaded body out into the King s vegetable garden, a place where only the women usually go, and, while she was still alive and fully conscious, buried her in the rhubarb patch. They dug a hole, sat her in it, filled it up to her neck with sand, and left her there.
For the rest of the morning, the sun roasted the top of her head and broiled her brains, the flies had fun with her eyes and nose and mouth, and the fire ants explored the depths of her ears. When the pied crows arrived about midday, they hopped around her for some time before they deprived the by now seething mass of ants of the pleasure of her eyes, pecking them out as she watched - she had no choice as her torturers had done a neat job of sewing her eyelids open. A jackal found its way into the compound during the first night and chewed off most of the side of her face. The ants finished her: that s what the sand was for, to make it easy for them to reach even the most intimate parts of her body. Ephraim didn t know at what point his sister died, though one of the other girls told him she was still screaming at four in the morning, some twenty hours after they d started beating her, that her head was a grossly enlarged black ball of insects, and she was down to a few weak moans a day later; but he did know that Fatima, who was in charge of the garden, planned to plant a new rhubarb heart on top of her remains.
Ephraim didn t tell me at the time why he d unburdened himself to me so suddenly, and I was too shocked to either ask or stop him. He didn t blame the boys who did it. They d acted under instruction. Who exactly had issued the instructions, Ephraim wouldn t tell me, not until much later. It was, he said, part of the way USuzwe worked, the way the governing lite ran things, the reason why, by African standards, the place functioned so very well.
As Ephraim told me his story, he referred, almost casually, to other barbarities of which he had first-hand knowledge. He spoke in his characteristically calm, matter-of-fact manner, while I felt myself torn apart by an emotional tornado brought on by the certainty that all the fun I d had over the past week had been like dancing on the tip of that proverbial iceberg: the fun bit, the white, sparkly ten per cent chunk basking in bright sunshine above the surface, floating courtesy of a monumental mass of hidden corruption, greed, and exploitative violence; and what worried me was that I could see how easy it would be for me, or for Mark, or for anyone, to slip off the icy top into the piranha waters beneath.
My spinelessness disgusted me. I felt desperately sorry for Ephraim s poor mother, but for him especially, that he appeared so determined to function normally in this unbelievable shit. Had it been one of my sisters, I d have been after someone with murder on my mind. But I quickly found a solution: I would leave, pack my bags that evening and put a few miles between me and that dreadful country. I would have done it, I almost did, but something happened at the end of that day out with Ephraim that, even for someone as jack selfish as myself, made running quite impossible.
Chapter 2
The Shuffle of Tiny Genes
I didn t tell Ephraim, but I already knew about the section of the palace at Gonwangombe where he had said the torture and slow murder of his sister took place, because he had mentioned that it was a place that only women go. In fact, it housed almost a hundred young women. They were a bonus, if you like, from the King s annual feast of female talent, because he quietly kept more than just the new Queen. These extras were his private preserve, so other men were banned from their quarters. The ones swinging around in the top of the tree with the King, the nine official wives he d collected during his nine-year reign, had proper houses and servants and BMWs and mixed in with humanity, if under close scrutiny, and he was duty-bound to visit them and procreate from them. But the girls of Freddie Mpureza s secret harem - because that, in effect, is what it was - were segregated from men or were supposed to be.
I knew about it because Mark was one of the few men permitted inside. And this is where a girl called Leila comes in. Leila explained something which, when I first arrived in USuzwe, puzzled me. My younger brother is as good with women as I am, but he was strangely reserved when we began working the rampant beauties in Sosweza s night clubs, Basil s in particular. Before he went abroad, Mark and I had been doing a double act for years - though never before across such fertile ground. Now, suddenly, Mark was drinking more and fucking, not less, but not at all. I finally pinned him down one early morning after we d arrived back at his bungalow from a blast of a night at Basil s. I sat him on his front veranda, gave him a beer, and asked him what the hell was wrong with him. He didn t tell me much, just that there was a girl, a local girl called Leila, who was beautiful and intelligent and fun and I d never, ever known Mark talk like this about a bird. And then, having sworn me to deadly secrecy, he explained that Leila couldn t be seen around town because she was confined in a palace; that Leila wasn t exactly one of King Freddie s lesser wives, his harem, but the job she d won at the Elephant Dance involved working with them. Mark told me that he should only have met Leila on the strictest business terms and certainly shouldn t be continuing to meet her, increasingly often and in dreadful secrecy. In fact, by the time he told me about her, they were more than what I would term meetings .
To go back to Ephraim and our journey to Kibonane: throughout his story, he d referred to my sister , as if he couldn t bear to pronounce her name. It was only as we accelerated up the slight incline into his home village that he let it slip. It gave me such a gut-jerking shock that I nearly drove the car into one of the giant granite boulders that surrounded the settlement. I recovered quickly enough, but my mind, my whole being, felt numb, divorced from the everyday actions of my body, because Ephraim s sister was also called Leila.
We parked at the edge of the village. Ephraim left me in the car and walked across to his mother s hut. I didn t go with him; I didn t offer and he didn t ask and I d have been useless if he had: I felt as if someone had just picked up a cricket bat and hit me over the back of the head, hard. In an attempt to recover, I climbed out and leaned against the front wing of the car and looked across the spiky tops of an ocean of monotonous thorn trees, miles and miles of them withering in the drought, while I tried to light a cigarette. But my hands shook so badly I couldn t manage it, because I was beginning to get seriously worried about Mark. Okay, so the city of Sosweza might contain a thousand Leilas but, in the many hours we d spent together in its cafes, bars, restaurants and dives, it wasn t a name I d come across other than the girl Mark had described as working in King Freddie s harem. And Ephraim s Leila had been killed at the same palace, Gonwangombe, which further narrowed down the field. It had to be the same girl. This meant that Mark was in dead trouble: real dead trouble. Yet he d calmly sent me off on a day s expedition into the bush with Leila s brother. And all the time Ephraim had behaved as if he didn t know about Leila and Mark, that my being there, and him telling me the story, had been pure coincidence. It didn t make sense.
I was diverted from these thoughts by the village s kids. I d been so wrapped up that I hadn t noticed them as they crept up on me. There were a couple of dozen or so of them, and they were all ages from babies carried on their sister s hips, to naked tots barely able to walk, through to wicked nine or ten-year-olds. They were all dusty and dirty but one thing struck me immediately. The kids we d seen along the roadside on our way there, if they were clothed at all, wore little more than rags, and most had snotty noses and pot bellies and limbs as thin and brittle as After Eights. We d stopped just once, so I could pick up a couple of Cokes from a wayside shop, and I d been surrounded in moments. It was less their physical state, bad as it was, that horrified me; it was the emptiness in their eyes.
The Kibonane lot, as I said, were as grubby as any kid playing in a back lot in Britain, but they were, by USuzwe standards, as fat as Christmas turkeys. Later, when I had time to think about it, the reason was bloody obvious. Ephraim might have left his village but he d been looking after it, the kids in particular, even though their parents had been so wicked to him.
Anyway, they stalked me like I was something out of Star Wars , some sort of alien beast, yet something magnetic that had to be approached and, if possible, touched. When I first noticed them I started, and they scattered, running in all directions and screaming like frightened rabbits, leaving a couple of the smallest howling in the dust. They crept back gradually, an advancing tide of inquisitiveness. Normally, I suppose because too many of our local Norfolk darlings think it s fun to throw things at fire-fighters, I tell kids to fuck off - I haven t the patience - but one of them had found the cigarette I d chucked away. He had it in his mouth and he was indicating that I should light it for him. I did one better. I leaned back into the Land Rover and found Mark s store of wine gums. By the time Ephraim re-emerged, I was surrounded by a puddle of laughing kids.
But their joy didn t stop me thinking. It didn t stop me worrying about Mark and wondering what Mark and Ephraim were playing at, whether they were working together in taking me away from Sosweza for the day or whether there was something deeper and much more subtle going on.
I met Miriam then, a stooped, grey-skinned, tired-eyed woman with a smile I couldn t believe. She came across, shook my hand, and spoke to me in a language I didn t understand. Because I never know what to say in these circumstances, I put my arm around her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek.
It was an excruciatingly silent drive back to the city. One thing I didn t do was to open the conversation by confessing what I knew about Leila and Mark. Things were already too complicated. And Ephraim - well, it was as if telling me about his sister s death was all he had intended to do, so, once that was over, further communication was superfluous.
I dropped Ephraim where I d picked him up in the morning, at the side door of the Perewa Palace, a modern government administrative building near the centre of Sosweza. After he d climbed out, he ducked his head back in through the passenger window and lifted the brim of his hat just enough for me to see his eyes. He thanked me, and my gaze held those eyes. They were red, all red, not only because he d been crying.
I need to talk to you, he said.
I hesitated. Okay, I agreed. I don t know why I agreed because he d had the whole bloody drive back to talk to me.
His eyes held mine. Not now, Johnny. Later. Okay?
I nodded. I wasn t telling him I would be on a plane long before we d have a chance to have chat. Anyway, later seemed safely flexible.
As Ephraim hurried away, a police car, a white Ford Taurus, pulled up alongside the Land Rover. A constable with a Hitler-like moustache and eyes impossibly close together squinted up at me. He spoke rapidly, gesticulating with an arm that lay along the sill of the open window. I didn t understand a word of what he said. He took some persuading before he would accept that I was English. Why did he have such difficulty? It s down to genetics.
The frenetic shuffling of genes that takes place at the moment of conception provides all of us with lifelong crosses to bear. My cross happens to be both extreme and peculiar: I m black. I wouldn t mind if I deserved to be black, but I don t. I shouldn t be black. My mother s white, in fact she s a peach-skinned redhead. My father s white, too, though he has slightly strange, tightly crinkled brown hair and skin that tans under an eleven watt eco-friendly lightbulb. And, before you start to speculate - no, my mum hadn t got up to any hanky-panky. I m my father s. Same as my two white sisters, and my white younger brother Mark. And, no, I didn t get mixed up in the bloody maternity ward.
So I m a white man who s taken at surface value, by those that don t know me, to be black. I m not a descendant of West Indian immigrants who came to drive the London buses back in the 50s, or a refugee from Zimbabwe or Somalia, or a student from Kenya who s overstayed his welcome, or the son of some Nigerian chieftain on a permanent shopping trip, or a South African bongo player. I m English, pure-bred Anglo-Saxon English. I ve got family on both sides that go back generations in Norfolk, and the whole lot have been white - or, being Norfolk fisherfolk, on the rare-beef red side of white.
Yet somewhere in each of my parent s family trees lurks a dark secret, because I m what s called a throwback . Both Mum and Dad must have recessive genes from black people who came to Britain. For all I know, they came with the Roman legions or were, perhaps, men of Moorish descent who were shipwrecked off Spanish galleons in the Armada. But they re pretty unusual recessive genes: my skin isn t a pale dark, something I could pretend was a ferocious suntan, but a rich marmite, with the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands a shade or two lighter, while my hair is black and tightly curly. Anyone who looks closely and uses their brains would spot the tell-tale differences to the ordinary black man: I have a fine, aquiline nose, and rather remarkable grey-blue eyes.
This trick nature played on me has caused a few problems. The schools I went to were overwhelmingly white and, being in deepest rural Norfolk, their students a little narrow-minded, so, when I first arrived, I was the butt of some unnecessary humour. I soon put a stop to that in a short altercation with my main tormentor, after which everyone got the message. By the time I reached secondary school, my African genes had given me a few compensatory advantages that I was very prepared to use: like, at age eleven, I was already almost six foot tall and built like Chaka the Great, with fists the size of a hippo s hams, and I d learned to use them. Girls were never a problem; they felt secure in my shadow. They seemed to have the weird idea that proximity to my dark skin would, somehow, improve their tan. And, later, there was the inevitable curiosity about the size of my appendage, which, thank God, was another, very welcome throwback.
For my parents, I must have been a nightmare. Can you imagine the consternation when I was born, particularly since my poor dad was there at the time? Or the strange looks thrown at us on family outings at Yarmouth funfair - especially when I tell you that my older sister is a stunning Essex-style blonde, my younger sister takes after Mum in having carroty hair, and Mark is solid, brick-faced Norfolk. Even the health visitor who came to see Mum when she first brought me home asked where I came from - my Mum told her Brixton.
Anyway, all this is really by-the-by, except that it does influence this story in two ways. Firstly, because of my affliction, I m much more understanding than the general population of other people s handicaps. For a start, I don t condescend. And this led to my becoming one of the few people who have ever managed to get close to the man I picked up in Mark s Land Rover and instantly recognised as my soul brother, a man who came into my life at a crucial moment and, although the process was rather messy, changed it forever. And, secondly, it did help that this crisis came at a time when I was in Africa where, as you would imagine, I blended in rather well, except, however much the policeman didn t believe me, I didn t speak the language.
So, my soul brother? Ephraim. Ephraim should have been as black as I should have been white, but he wasn t. Ephraim s an albino.
If I thought my blackness caused me a problem, I was put in my place in the first hour of our acquaintance as, with some gentle persuading and a great deal of genuine empathy - perhaps the very things which, later, caused him to unburden the horrors of Leila s death - I winkled Ephraim s story out of him.
For his poor parents, as with mine, there was no forewarning. There had never been an albino in the district before, let alone in this small village miles from anywhere, out in what is commonly and very dismissively called the bush , a scattering of huts hidden amongst the giant granite boulders of a kopje. The surrounding countryside was a monotonous mass of tangled thorn trees, the nsika, the wilderness, their grotesquely stunted, leafless branches stained orange by the dust blown from the parched earth. The people eked out a living by keeping a few cattle and goats, and by growing millet. The women foraged in the bush for anything that was remotely edible, roots, berries, grubs, caterpillars, lizards, while the men did the serious, macho stuff, hunting: if they came back with something bigger than a lizard, the population got excited. If the rains failed, which was often, the village starved.
Ephraim s birth was viewed as a catastrophe. Normally, this squalling white blob, with its pink irises and strangely blotched skin, would either have been left out for the hyenas, or kidnapped and murdered so that his body parts, highly valued for use in the rituals of witchcraft, could be sold. That he survived was largely down to Mboko, his father, not a man of any standing in the village yet a man of immense faith and courage. His steadfastness was richly rewarded, for it quickly became apparent that Ephraim had an exceptional mind. As soon as he was five he, like all the village totos, trotted ten miles each early morning to school, and ten miles back each afternoon. His teacher instantly recognised his talent. Ephraim picked up ideas quicker than a sponge collects water, and his capacity with numbers was little short of miraculous.
The teacher sent for Ephraim s father. It was a difficult meeting, for Mboko stood in awe of this elegantly dressed stranger from a foreign world. He could hardly speak in response to the questions he was asked. When he returned to his village, when Miriam questioned him, he remembered little the teacher had said - except that, unless they properly cared for Ephraim, he would be dead within a year.
The albinos that survive in Africa are doubly cursed. To their fellow villagers, they are freaks, the object of bullying and cruelty. Ephraim, never strong at the best of times, suffered miseries in the playground and on his way to and from school, but these afflictions were nothing compared to what the sun did to him. His skin, lacking melanin, could not cope with the slightest exposure. At an early point his mother noticed blemishes where his skin had been touched by sunlight; orange and brown blotches which, unless treated, would grow into cancers. By the time he went to school, some were open ulcers which caused him agony.
His teacher, Mr Mutesa, put a stop to that. He made Ephraim attend the local clinic. They treated the ulcers and issued him with pills which he had to take daily - they contained beta carotene. He was given a wide-brimmed bush-hat which he was instructed to wear at all times outdoors. He was found some long-sleeved cotton shirts, several sizes too large for him, which he wore to cover his arms and, with the collar up, to protect his neck, long socks, and two pairs of cheap, plastic sunglasses. In this bizarre outfit, with only his nose and knees showing, he broiled in the African heat. But this discomfort remained nothing compared to the psychological misery his schoolfellows inflicted on him.
Despite this, with Mr Mutesa s encouragement, Ephraim s academic progress would have left a shooting star standing. He had the last laugh when his schoolmates watched him, the only pupil from his primary ever to progress to the dizzy heights of secondary school, climb onto a bus on his departure for his first term in a distant town. Inevitably, in the enclosed environment of a boarding school, the bullying became more brutal. Lacking the respite of home each evening, Ephraim learned to endure as his fellows hounded him on the playing field, in the showers and in the dormitory. He might have been a sickly little child but he took this misery without flinching.
As his school career progressed, he showed such brilliance in mathematics that he achieved the impossible for a bush boy: an open scholarship to read mathematics at Sosweza University. There, Ephraim discovered the computer. The great thing about computers is that they work very well in a darkened room, the one environment in which Ephraim could thrive. As Ephraim s incredible abilities became more widely known, King Freddie Mpureza heard of him and made him an offer he couldn t refuse. So when, at the age of twenty-one, he completed his PhD, he went to work for the King. Soon after, he paid a brief visit to the village to give his beloved parents the news. Like virtually all the population of USuzwe, despite their privations, they loved and worshipped their monarch. The idea that their son would work for him overwhelmed them. They wept with pride. Aweek later, at the age of forty-four and after silent years of suffering from bilharzia, a perfectly curable disease carried in fresh water, Ephraim s father Mboko was dead.

I badly needed diversion so, that evening, I was persuaded to go to a party at the house of a man I wish I d never met.
It was some house. I d never seen so much marble in all my life. The walls, the floors, the surrounds to the water feature in the centre of the foyer, the reception rooms, the hall, the stairs and landings and even, when I got to them, the bedrooms and bathrooms were marble, in every colour and pattern you can imagine. There were marble columns, marble statues, marble sideboards, marble dado rails and skirtings, marble benches and balustrades round the marble-lined outdoor swimming pool and marble fountains; even the handles that flushed the toilets were marble. There must have been hundreds of tonnes of the stuff, all, I would suspect, from somewhere expensive like Italy.
Jesus, I whispered. As I was discovering, USuzwe was a place of stark contrasts: just compare the poverty I d seen along the roadsides earlier in the day to this excess of tasteless extravagance!
The blonde girl who had her hand tucked firmly under my arm, squeezed it. Told ya it d be worth coming, she said.
Man must like marble.
He s stinking rich. She glanced at me. Should be a good party!
I hadn t wanted to come because Mark hadn t been home after I dropped Ephraim. This was abnormal. He d planned to take the second week of my holiday off to spend with me and he d sworn he d be home by mid-afternoon every day of my first week. After what had happened with Ephraim, I really needed to talk to him and I still had it in my head to phone the airline and change my flight. I wanted to know whether he d had any idea of what was going to happen between Ephraim and me; whether he d thrown us together deliberately and whether he knew a fraction of the things Ephraim had described. I kept trying his mobile without success and, the more unsuccessful I was, the more I stormed up and down and cursed and swore and kicked the furniture. Finally, I took a shower, dressed in slacks and a Pierre Cardin shirt, and was about to climb back into the Land Rover and make my way to Basil s when the blonde pulled up in a taxi.
You fuckin forgot! she d spat as she climbed out.
I stood and stared at her. In my opinion, blondes are at their best when they re angry - it does something to their skin - but what she d said was true because, by that stage in my alcoholic stay, I d probably forgotten far more than I d remembered. I did remember her name, Teresa, and I did remember I d met her at Basil s a couple of nights previously. She was one of those Essex-type, bob-cut, natural blondes with baby blue eyes, immaculate makeup, painted nails and a drop-dead perfect body, who are so bloody good at everything they make me sick. She was the sort of girl I avoid because I don t even want to pretend to compete, but I had a feeling she d taken a shine to me because she d insisted on sitting next to me at Basil s, pressing her hips firmly against mine, leaning forward as often as possible to display her cleavage, and telling me how she d been seconded by the BBC to the local set-up, the USuzwe Broadcasting Corporation, to help them drag themselves into the twenty-first century, and how she d been appalled at what she d found there. I remember thinking that it must be hard to be a pale English girl competing for men in a country where the women wore natural suntans and were gorgeous and unpretentious. Anyway, I think I was polite to her. Like I said, after that I don t remember much.
Party? she said. You d forgotten?
No, I lied. I was just
Where s Mark?
I shrugged.
God! she said. British fucking men! Then, jerking a thumb at the Land Rover, she added, Okay, so you ll have to take me in that.
I had no idea who the man was who was throwing the party, but I went because it seemed a good way of taking my mind off what had happened that afternoon. Also, I needed to stop worrying about Mark and, most importantly, she might be an Essex blonde but she d probably be fun.
As we drove, Teresa had rambled on about everyone knowing about the party, that Mark would probably be there when we arrived, that, in any case, I d promise to take her so
The whole set-up left me breathless. For a start, I d never been anywhere where, as you draw up in front of the entrance portico, a flunky comes over, opens the door for you as if you re driving a Rolls Royce, asks politely for your keys, and parks the car. I ve never, in all my life, seen so much drink - bottles and magnums and barrels and cans and ice buckets and mixers and soda machines, all neatly arranged on bars scattered all around the reception rooms; and black men in white nightshirts coming and taking away your drink after you ve had the first sip and freshening it up; and men wandering round with silver salvers mounded with caviar, and long tables laden with cold buffets, and half an ox being barbecued on the back lawn; and
Teresa and I just grinned at each other and waded right in.
I didn t know anybody there but she seemed to know the whole lot. There were all sorts: black men immaculate in smartly cut casuals, the whites, mostly aid workers, like me, much shabbier, and the girls in anything from hot pants and a vest designed to fit a three-year old, through to the Usuzwan traditional, brightly printed long cotton dress and matching turban. Teresa looked good in a sort of catsuit in a rainbow-patterned, semi-transparent material that proved she d forgotten her bra.
As the party progressed, she got more and more stoned. I don t use the stuff myself, alcohol s more than I can cope with, but she kept saying there was plenty upstairs and why didn t I join her. I was quite happy to spend time with a couple of honey-skinned USuzwan girls while she did her regular disappearances. A couple of times I noticed her going up the big, wide, formal marble staircase and turning right along the marbled balcony that overlooked the main, mostly marble, reception room.
Give Teresa her due, she kept coming back to me. I didn t mind, she was as good as anything else floating around, and I had this vague idea that, one day, I d see her on the telly and think, God, I had that! At some point, when I was past caring even about Mark and far more interested in finding out whether Teresa s bum was really as firm and peach-like as it looked under that material, she came back with a black bloke in tow. She introduced him as Jester Kisingo and said he was the one throwing the party. I slurred the sort of polite thank-yous my mum had taught me and managed to ask him what he did for a living.
He s Deputy Prime Minister, Teresa giggled. She was completely away with the fairies by that stage.
What? I said. Of USuzwe?
He didn t look the politician sort. He was tall, six-two perhaps, mid-forties, big shoulders, dressed in an over-bright Hawaiian beach shirt, off-white slacks and leather sandals, and he was good-looking in a classic way with sharply cut cheekbones, smooth, Bovril-coloured skin and elegant hands. But his eyes! Jesus, I could see where his decorative taste came from. He smiled plenty, he was studiously polite, but his eyes were cold, hard and calculating. If I d been asked to guess his business I d have said, Gangster .
And you? he asked.
Me? Sorry, I m a tourist, visitor, staying with my bro for a couple of weeks.
Your brother? His English was excellent, so clipped it might have been British public school.
Yes. Works for MMSS, security stuff.
He leaned slightly towards me. His name?

Mark, I said. I didn t like the way his snake-like eyes held mine. Mark Strowger.
His face didn t react, but it was the momentary pause, the fractional hesitation that a good poker player doesn t have, that told me: the bloke knew Mark. And his reaction wasn t the usual incredulity, the how the hell does Mark have a black brother? Whatever he knew about Mark he didn t like, because he turned away abruptly, said something I didn t catch to Teresa, and walked away from us. I noticed him a few moments later going up his marble stairs two at a time. Teresa wasn t far behind.
I fell in the swimming pool some time after that. I ve no idea how long after but it can t have been too long. There were plenty of people already in, not so much swimming as splashing water around and yelling, including several girls who d lost their clothes. When I climbed out, I was sick into one of the marble urns that stood on the balustrade that surrounded the pool. I felt much better after that, but I grabbed a whisky from a passing waiter to settle my stomach.
Perhaps the whisky reminded me about Mark, because I took a walk round the downstairs area to see if he d arrived, but couldn t find him. The marble clock above the big staircase said quarter to midnight so I went upstairs to find Teresa and tell her I was moving on to Basil s to look for Mark. I knew she d turned right at the top so I walked round a sort of balcony that looked down onto the heaving mob below, which led to a passageway that ran the length of the upstairs. The first room off it was a sort of upstairs sitting room, a big, smoky, comfy place that overlooked the rear of the property, with padded leather couches and easy chairs scattered around it, with a bar in one corner and a marble-topped table in the opposite. Most of what was on offer on the table was white powder, but there was other stuff as well, and the people lounging in the seats were making good use of it. Teresa wasn t among them, so I checked the next door along the corridor and found myself walking into a suite of rooms that reminded me of the only sex orgy I d ever been to, in a house in a posh suburb of Amsterdam. The people had simply left their clothes on the floor by the door and waded into the crowd. In the subdued lighting, it took me a few minutes to search the place. No one seemed to mind my sidling over and checking their identities. With one lady, who had skin roughly the colour of Teresa s, I had to lift her partner s leg to check her face.
You re probably wondering why I bothered about Teresa when I had something else to do, i.e. finding my brother. I mean, the girl had wandered off of her own accord, and the way she d followed the Deputy Prime Minister upstairs was just like a spaniel following its master even though it knew it was about to get a thrashing, and I did have something quite important I needed to do. It was all to do with my upbringing. Mum had made Mark and I swear that if we were ever lucky enough to persuade a girl to go out with us on a date, then we had to feel responsible for her. It was, she said, the sign of a decent man. I wasn t sure whether Teresa had asked me or vice-versa, but, as far as I was concerned, she was my date and I was going to make damn sure she was okay before I buggered off.
I found her a little further down the passage, lying naked and balled up in a dark alcove which housed a marble statuette of a small, naked little boy on a plinth. She was folded around it, like a rag doll that had been thrown into a corner. What was left of her dress was draped over the little boy s nakedness and her knickers were missing.
Thank God I m a trained first aider and that this kicked in before any emotions intervened, because Teresa was in a bad way. At first I thought she d done something stupid with the dope and the drink, but when I saw the mess he d made of her face, I knew what had happened. Again, if I hadn t had her to worry about, I d probably have charged off to look for Jester and, when I found him, I d have made an even bigger mess of him. As it was, Teresa regained consciousness enough to become quite excited when I suggested I needed to ring for an ambulance. She wouldn t let me take her to Casualty, she wouldn t go to the nearest police station, and when I got insistent she managed, through bruised and bloody lips, to slur something about my not being a fucking arsehole and please to drive her home. Which I did, but before I left her with a house-mate, she made me swear by Almighty God that I wouldn t go back and kill Jester Kisingo.

By the time I walked through the front entrance to Basil s, I d stopped seething, the scalding anger having being replaced by a tense but calculated resolve that, if I ever met that smooth shit of a Deputy Prime Minister again, I d give him cause to remember what he d done to my date. But I forgot him pretty quickly as I was immediately accosted by one of the best girls at Basil s. Her name was Prudence Jane - it was her real name - and I d already discovered that she was neither prudent nor plain. In fact, she was a lovely girl, a good six foot tall and slim as a reed, with skin the colour of melted butter and a finely sculpted face dominated by one of those wonderfully long, straight, slightly flared noses that make a girl look terribly, terribly haughty - which she wasn t, because she was just natural, gangling, exuberant fun. She was also one of the most energetic girls I ve met in a long career with women. The last time I d seen her, when I d lain beside her feeling as limp as a sheet that s been six times through a mangle, she d told me she came from a small town just inland from the coast, and that her fine features had been inherited from a Masai grandmother, a woman who had been abducted as a girl from across the northern border in the good old days when tribal raiding for cattle and girls was the equivalent of an away football match.
Had I been met by anyone else, I might have taken out my frustration on them, but Prudence must have read my mood because she wrapped a long arm round my neck, her hand coming down to rub my chest, and made sure her hip made firm contact with mine before she led me in the direction of the table where Mark and his mates always congregated.
We miss you! she purred.
Yeah, I said, feeling the tension beginning to slide off my shoulders. Late, thirsty, angry and horny.
Just the usual, then, Prudence laughed, as she pushed roughly through a knot of dancers.
So I calmed down. It was typical of me; white-hot fury one minute, then a girl takes me in hand and soothes me, and everything s okay and I set about enjoying myself the next. I m an idiot, because lots of things should have been worrying me sick. If only I d sat down by myself, quietly and with my brain switched on and, even for a few seconds, gathered the grey matter and thought about what I d learned in the previous few hours from Ephraim and from what had happened at that party, I would have been really worried. The trouble was, I didn t think. It was the Easyman syndrome, so my reaction to the great, boiling grey storm clouds that, if only I d looked, were filling my whole horizon and would have terrified any other idiot, was to go to Basil s, find a girl and a drink, let my hair down, and have a bloody good time.
Making my way through the crowds, with the sensation of this gorgeous girl beside me dressed in a skirt so short it would have made a pelmet envious, I was beginning to feel I d been spooked too easily by Ephraim. Looking round, Basil s was everything Mark had cracked it up to be. It was everything a man could ever imagine for an evening s fantastic fun, yet the next few hours, including any extra-curricular activities with some of the girls afterwards, might cost me twenty quid British. I really liked Basil s Nite Club and Eatery, to give it its full name. It was the sort of place where I felt at home.
It s difficult to put a finger on what exactly was so special about it. Partly it was the music, always live because Franco, the half-Portuguese, half-USuzwe ex-South African mercenary who owned the place, knew every good band south of the Congo river. Partly it was the ambience: every flat surface was shiny black, it had a ceiling which was so low that half the USuzwe men had to adopt a permanent stoop, and the bar ran the length of one wall and was so amply staffed with capable girls that you never, but never had to wait for a drink.
It certainly wasn t the area. Basil s was in a seriously rundown, filthy, crime-ridden quarter of town, one of those areas that was next up in the squalor ladder from the shanties Mark and I had visited, yet trouble with valuables like our cars was unheard of. Okay, okay, so Basil s main attraction was its girls, because Franco seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of utterly ravishing women, almost as if he d had the pick of the nation s crop even before Freddie got to see them at the Elephant Dance. They were there as hostesses, to serve the drinks, to make sure clients had a good time, and for anything else you cared to pay them to do.
The other attraction about Basil s was its clientele. Mark s group of expats were an exception. Most, unlike the other city clubs I d visited with Mark, were locals, USuzwans, fat men of every age who had ridden the wave of the country s colossal development boom and done well out of it. A fair proportion were shrewd businessmen who were looking for a place to relax where they didn t need to watch everything they said, a place where they could, if they so chose, bring their mistresses or pick up a nice girl and have some fun. But they weren t its core. The real buzz of the place came from the patronage of none other than King Freddie himself.
I d met Freddie the first night I was there. It must have been well after midnight and nothing particular had happened, yet the atmosphere, the feel of the place, suddenly changed, as if a breath of charged air had blown in through the front door. Then the packed dancers peeled apart and a huge man stepped through, heading straight for our table.
Freddie had the build a fireman would envy. I was to see him later in his full, regal gear - leopard skin cloak, short kilt, that sort of thing - and he d got one hell of a beer-belly on him, but it didn t show that night. He was dressed in an immaculately cut lightweight suit with a cream-coloured, open-necked silk shirt and alligator skin shoes, and he looked as if he might just have stepped straight out of Gieves and Hawkes in London s Savile Row. He was tall, well over six foot, and heavy across the shoulders, but what struck me, what I was told everyone first noticed, was his face. It was all smile. It s the only way I can describe it. The rest of the visage, the dark eyes, the neat moustache, the small nose and very firm chin, didn t seem to matter. It was as if there was nothing there except for that huge, all-encompassing, big-lipped smile - until you heard the voice, and that was deep, way down there, like big stones rolling around in the bottom of a 45-gallon oil drum. And, my God, the King of USuzwe could laugh.
Mark had managed to struggle to his feet, but the big man wasn t interested in him. Without hesitation, he grabbed my hand, giving it the sort of bone-crushing treatment it might have hoped for had it been run over by a road-roller, while roaring some sort of welcome to his kingdom. It was so overpowering, I was so taken aback, so overwhelmed, that I didn t manage to get a word out before he d moved on - accompanied by his retinue and followed, shortly afterwards, by a couple of girls weighed down under trays of bottles of Elephant Beer, the local lager and standard drink at Basil s.
So that, Mark had informed me as the girls tried to make space for the King s present among the dead men already crowding our table, that is our king, the king of the fastest-developing nation south of the Sahara, a man who owns a fair chunk of Knightsbridge, a castle in Perthshire, a thousand tonne yacht on the Mediterranean, half a million acres of Nevada pine-forest, and most of USuzwe.
His face was flushed, his eyes alight as he glanced around to catch similar looks from the others crowded round the table. These expats were proud of this king of a strange country, and Mark was proud to be working in USuzwe for this grinning gorilla of a man.
I remembered it all so vividly and remembered it again much later when I understood what was really going on. As Prudence and I approached our table, I saw that the usual mob were there, shouting and banging bottles on the table when they saw me, but Mark wasn t. He hadn t been seen all evening.
Amazingly, I still didn t allow myself to worry: there were so many other places he could have been and Basil s, after the stresses of the day, distracted me more easily than ever. The worry only crept up on me again as the early hours wore on, after one or two of the others had said how odd it was that Mark hadn t put in an appearance like he always did, particularly with me being around.
We were interrupted by the girl who looked after the coats at the front entrance. I d noticed her on every visit because she was a remarkably petite, pretty girl, not the USuzwe type at all, and I d thought how wasted she was in that job. She was holding a small, cube-shaped package wrapped in stiff brown paper and tied very neatly with thin, red string. She tried to hand it to me but, at that stage, I was so boxed in by people that she couldn t reach, so Prudence, sitting next to me, passed it to me. It had my name on it, but when I glanced at the coat girl, she shrugged her shoulders. I knew it had to be from Mark. It was his sort of thing, sending me a package perhaps by way of apology, or as some sort of clue as to where I d find him. As my right hand was trapped inside Prudence s knickers, I left it to her to open for me.
She made a big show of the job, with everyone watching and guessing what it might be, and it was a pleasure to observe as that girl had the most delicate, dexterously long fingers I d ever seen. She slipped the string off - and I can only describe it as like watching a good stripper remove the boa from around her neck - and peeled away the brown paper to reveal a small, matt black cardboard box with a neat lid, which she turned round and round before us. But when she slowly, tantalisingly opened it and, finally, peered inside, she dropped it, controlled herself for a moment, then jerked forward, knocking over several bottles before spewing across the table. Her action was so sudden, so unexpected, and the sheer volume of vomit so colourful and gross, that, in the chaos that followed, few of us had time to notice what had fallen out of the box.
For a moment, I thought the object lying on the black table surface amidst the debris of bottles, plates, half-empty glasses, spilt beer and vomit was an oversized grub, a maggot, a caterpillar, large and elongate and palely white. But it wasn t. It was a finger.
Chapter 3
There are moments when the world stands still and when everything that follows moves in slow motion, when what s happening round the edges fades because you re concentrating on what s straight in front of you. I ve a vivid memory of that moment, so encompassing that, when I recall it, I seem to step back into the bedlam that was Basil s that night. I see the table and the bottles with Prudence s puke dripping stickily from them, and the occasional shocked face caught so quickly it seems frozen; and I can hear the sounds, close but muffled, of people shouting and shoving and laughing, and smell the sour stench of sick in the back of my nostrils. I remember reaching out in a detached, dreamworld way, picking up the thing that had fallen onto the table, dropping it back into its box and, even though it was a bit messy, retrieving the lid to close it.
Most of Mark s friends had already vanished into the gawping crowd that pressed in on us, a wall of faces suddenly replaced by girls, girls with buckets and mops and cloths and big black plastic bin bags and white-toothed smiles, girls distracting other customers attentions, girls dealing with Prudence s hysterics, girls trying to resettle our group - what was left of it.
If everything around me ran slowly, my mind had become icily clear. That s how I was trained, by the Marines, by the fire brigade and, in a different way, in the job in London. You don t do anything, you don t move, you don t breathe until you ve had what the Marines call a Hamlet moment - you ve thought. This sort of situation happened often enough in Rescue. You walk up to a car that s been involved in an RTA and there s a woman in it. She s slumped over the wheel, she s bloody, she doesn t look as if she s breathing and the overwhelming smell is of petrol. Or you re wearing breathing apparatus as you squirm your way into a burning building and you can t see a blind thing for smoke, but you ve just felt what s got to be a body.
And, however coldly and calculatedly and from whatever direction I looked at this scenario, there was only one conclusion: since it was a white finger and Mark wasn t there and he should have been, then it could well be his.
By that time, enough people had shifted for me to be able to push my way out from behind the table. There was one thing I was determined would not happen: I would not be lulled into any sense of security by Mark s well-intentioned friends. I don t mean to be nasty, but brain-dead expat drinkers, even the sort who had sufficient intelligence to find their way into a smart place like Basil s, are probably not the sort of tough, hard-nosed bastards you need when your whole world has suddenly been turned upside down and shaken.

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