Dambuza drove out to Delly’s. He still hadn’t processed what he’d heard in Tito’s office. What the hell kind of place was Maun? A man is chopping off pieces of bodies at the government morgue and taking them back to his lab to watch bugs eat them? Then when he’s done with the parts, he throws them in the back of his bakkie, drives out to the bush and buries the lot in a big hole. Meanwhile the prestigious new laboratory is fronting as a hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS and may be building biological weapons in the back office. Doctors are beating the shit out of their mistresses. And then on top of that people are disappearing like ghosts in the night. When Dambuza was transferred from Francistown he thought lazy Maun was going to bore him out of his mind. Was this really happening in Botswana? Quiet, stable Botswana? It seemed impossible.
If this girl, Annah, had been taken or killed, Dambuza couldn’t help but be blamed. She had begged him to put her in the jail; she knew she was in danger. But he’d been confident they would collect both men the same night. And besides he was positive Renet was their guy, the leader of the entire thing, he was sure the whole thing was over it was just a matter of tying up loose ends. When they hadn’t found Pops, he somehow forgot about Annah. He was so caught up in his own drama with Bontle coming that a scared girl had been forgotten, and now she might be dead.
Dambuza parked the Corolla outside Delly’s plot as there were quite a few cars already parked inside. As he walked up to the house, he could see there was some sort of meeting taking place in the office. Delly was sitting at the front but when she saw Dambuza she came out.
“It’s the family and some neighbours. They’re about to go out again to look for her. She just disappeared. The mother says she was behind the house washing clothes. When it got dark she went out back to see if she was finished and she wasn’t there. From the look of the washing, she must have been taken shortly after she started. Dambuza, she’s just a kid. I’ve known her since she was born. She used to come and ride her bike in the driveway when she was small. Have they found the other guy?”
“No? But you said they’d get him that night. Why didn’t someone tell the family? They might have been more cautious knowing the man their daughter was accusing of kidnapping and killing five people was out on the loose. Someone fucked up, Dambuza!”
“Yeah, you’re right. It was me. I should have done it. I knew she was scared and she was right to be.” He rubbed his forehead and sighed. “Are there any leads at all?”
“We haven’t found anything. We have a Bushman guide following the trail but it stops at the tarred road and he’s can’t find anything from there.”
Dambuza nodded at the crowd in the office. “What’s their plan?”
“As you can imagine they’re pretty worked up. About half of them are heading out to Makalamabedi, the rest are going to keep searching Maun. They want to find Pops, and I think when they do they won’t be very kind to him.”
Dambuza felt impotent. This didn’t need to happen. He’d been careless and selfish and stupid. She’d been so frightened; she’d begged him to keep her safe. He was failing everyone everywhere he turned. He heard movement and looked up to see the meeting was disbursing. He needed to alert the boss about what was going on. Some uniforms needed to get to Makalamabedi because if this mob found Pops, in the excited state they were in, they’d likely kill him.
He called Tito and let him know what was going on, but then Dambuza didn’t know what to do. He needed to find the girl- but how? Then he remembered the traditional doctor in Makalamabedi, Khathurima. Dambuza had no other leads, maybe he could help. He headed for the Corolla.
Delly rushed after him. “Dambuza, I’m sorry, about what I said. How were you to know they’d come after her? You were sure Pops would be caught.”
They both knew her words weren’t honest. He was supposed to do his job, that was it, and he hadn’t. She was trying to make him feel better but they both knew it was futile.
“No, Delly, I messed up. You’re right. It seems to be all I can do lately. I let Gopolong nearly kill Neo, and now this. I can’t get my head straight. For now on I need to focus, focus on my job before anyone else gets hurt.”
Like before, Khathurima seemed to be waiting for him. Before Dambuza could explain why he’d come, Khathurima spoke. “She’s dead, but you already know that.”
He was right. As soon as he’d arrived at Delly’s place, Dambuza knew it was too late. He knew the girl was dead. “Where is she?”
“Not far from home. By the water, hidden, in the reeds. You’ll find her. You will.”
Dambuza got up to leave but Khathurima grabbed his arm with his large, strong hand. “Be cautious, ngwanake, you’ve made enemies, bitter enemies. They are not finished harming those you love. They are in danger, the closer you come to the answer, the more danger they will be in.”
“Who? Who is in danger?”
Khathurima shook his head. “I can’t see clearly, but it is someone near to your heart. Be very careful or the person will die.”
It was already night by the time Dambuza turned back to Maun, the moon rose massive and orange in front of him. A haunting moon- was it a foreshadow of what was to come? Who could Khathurima be speaking about? Could Bontle and the children be in some sort of danger? And how would solving this case cause harm to them?
He drove quickly toward Maun. If he could do nothing else, he wanted to find Annah’s body for her family. He decided to pass by Delly first. He didn’t relish traipsing around along the river with Kgosi and his archenemy patrolling the shores. Delly would know better where to look and how to do it safely.
He found her sitting at the back of her office at the edge of the parking lot waiting, smoking a cigarette. “I didn’t know you smoked,” Dambuza said pulling up next to her.
She shook her head. She suddenly looked her age sitting so still on the edge of the stoop. “I don’t really, not anymore. It was the only thing I could think of doing.”
Dambuza explained what Khathurima had told him, leaving out the warning. Delly went in the office and came out with two powerful torches and they headed down to the river with Bob trailing behind. The moon was now high in the sky, white and full, casting a silver glow on everything. They started at Delly’s house and headed up river. They walked slowly shining their beams carefully back and forth in the tall reeds. Neither one of them felt like talking, they both seemed to accept the traditional doctor’s words as the truth and knew they were searching for the young woman’s body.
They walked for close to two hours and had found nothing. Twice Dambuza heard the deep rumble of a hippo, but Delly assured him, though it sounded near, it was quite far away. “Do you think we should turn back? Maybe we need to retrace where we’ve been. He said she was near to her home, we’re quite far now,” Dambuza said.
“Not really…wait…what’s that?” Delly focussed her torch beam near the water. There she was. The body was laying half submerged in mud; only her shoulders, arms, and head were out of the water. Dambuza looked at her delicate hand laying in the water, her fist half open, and he was sure he could feel her grabbing his arm and begging to be kept safe.
Dambuza and Delly guarded the body until the uniforms and the forensic staff arrived. They’d not touched anything just watched the young girl in the muddy water, protecting her from any more harm. They sat in silence, only the lapping of the water against the reeds filled the night air.
Once the team arrived they made their way back to Delly’s place. Dambuza slumped into one of the low chairs on the veranda. He told her about Renet trying to put off the conversation he knew they both wanted to have.
Delly handed him a beer and sat down next to him. “It’s not your fault, really, it’s not,” she said. “Some asshole killed her, he’s to blame.”
“I may not have killed her, but I didn’t stop it from happening either. And I had the chance, that’s the thing, I had the chance to save this one. I don’t think I have a chance with the other ones, not anymore.”
“No one’s perfect. You made a mistake. But actually you thought they’d get him, just like we got Lebo. Renet was in jail. You thought she’d be fine.”
“Yeah... well she wasn’t.” Dambuza was tired of talking about this since he and Delly both knew he’d fucked up so anything else she said was just words. “How’s Neo?”
“She’s been staying with Nana. Wants to get back to work tomorrow, but she looks like shit. The story she’s telling is she fell down. Not very creative but that’s it. No one’s gonna buy it of course.”
Dambuza was always surprised at how Delly’s veranda relaxed him. Hanging out over the ledge, the branches of trees jutting onto the deck, the river a few metres away. He never thought much about the restorative powers of nature, but he had to admit sitting back there was almost always the medicine that he needed, that and ample alcohol. Delly had slipped a bottle of Jack Daniels and a shot glass on the table in front of him and as they spoke he’d forgotten how many shots he drank, though the magic of the liquid was beginning to take its effect. And the cold, hard truths of life were receding into the background getting fuzzy and warm and far less sharp.
He leaned back in his chair and tried to clear his mind. He didn’t want to think about dead young women or beaten up researchers or pieces of human bodies used for science or wives that were gone forever. Closing his eyes he felt the cool night breeze blow over his body and took in the scent of wild sage and lavender. This crazy mad place had something that he was settling into. “Do you think when my kids come during school holidays you can take us out into the Delta?”
“I’d love to. Despite your city ways, I have a feeling you and the fabulous Okavango Delta are going to become fast friends,” Delly said.
Dambuza opened his eyes and looked at her. “You know, I can’t believe it really, but sometimes I think you know me better than I know me, but we’ve only known each other for a few months. How did that happen?”
“I’ve always thought there are people who just find each other. It’s meant to be. I was meant to find you. Maybe so I could start my new career as a private detective.” Her laugh boomed out over the river. Bob got up from the corner and stood next to Delly, his tail wagging, but when he realised nothing fun was going to happen, he sat down next to her and let his big heavy head fall onto her lap.
As soon as he heard the first ‘Ko’, Dambuza knew it was Nana. Did he need more drama in this day? He’d been avoiding her since the incident at the bar. He still hadn’t figured out what it all meant. He didn’t want to feel anything and that wonderful state was hard to maintain whenever Nana was around.
Nana bent down and kissed her mother then sat down on the sofa. She reached forward for the bottle on the table, poured herself a shot, and drank it down in one gulp. “That’ll help.”
She got up and went into the house for a beer and still hadn’t greeted Dambuza. She came back and sat down. “In my world,” she started in the middle, as if the conversation was continuing from the other night in the bar, “a man doesn’t kiss a woman and run.”
Dambuza kept quiet and the air prickled with anticipation, unanswered questions.
“Okay then…” Delly stood up, suddenly very uncomfortable in her own house. “I think I’ll go fetch us a pizza in town.” Neither Dambuza nor Nana acknowledged Delly’s leaving.
“Okay, yeah, you’re right,” Dambuza said. “But please, if you care anything about me at all, don’t force me into discussing this now. I will explain everything, I will I promise. As soon as I figure it all out, I’ll let you know. But another time, any other time- except tonight. I’ve had a crap day of epic proportions preceded by a weekend that might have killed a weaker man, and all I want is to get quietly drunk and speak of nice things. Please, I beg you to have mercy on me just this once.”
Nana sat back on the sofa and sighed, then smiled. “Okay. In fact, Mum called and told me a bit. I will acquiesce to your wish kind sir.”
Nana stood up in front of him where he sat on his chair and held out her hands. He took her hands in his and she pulled him to his feet and led him to the sofa where she’d been sitting. She laid him carefully down and then sat at the end. Placing his head in her lap. She slowly rubbed his head, her fingers making circular motions, moving slowly to every patch of his scalp. The pressure relaxed his entire body and all of his senses were attuned to her expert hands. With every circle of her fingers, he could feel the tension dissipating. Soon all he focussed on was the movement of her hands and the pressure of her fingers. And then she began to speak, softly.
“Once when I was a little girl, my mother told me the most wonderful story. It was about a woman, an old woman who’d lost her son,” Nana began. “He’d been a good son. He worked hard to help his mother when he was young and when he grew up he finished school and got a fine job. His mother worked as a maid for some people, mean people, but the mother stayed so she could pay for her son’s school fees. She stayed to pay his university fees. He promised that once he got a good paying job, he would buy her a house and pay for a maid to take care of her instead. But just after finishing school, he suddenly disappeared. The old woman was frantic with heartache. Time passed and only the franticness wore off, the heartache grew roots and took up everything inside of her. Everyone told the old woman- your son is dead. Your son has run away forever. The old woman didn’t want to believe it. She knew her son was alive somewhere. All she had to do was wait, and so she waited at the house where she worked, with the horrible people, but her son never came. Her will was strong, though. Somewhere inside she knew her son would return.”
“One day she sat on the stoop, for she was old now and could do very little work, but the horrible people made her polish the stoop anyway, but to do this she had to sit down and scoot along, one bit at a time. She looked up. She wasn’t sure why, she just felt the longing to look up, and then she saw him. She saw her son. But he was not in the form of the young man who disappeared so long ago, but it was her son in every other way. The young woman came forward and took the old woman by the hand. She helped her to her feet. They walked hand-in-hand away from that place, the place of sadness and horrible people. The young woman, the old woman’s son in another form, took the old woman to a beautiful house where maids took care of her and soothed all of the sadness and waiting from her aching body and the two; the old woman and her son, the young woman who he arrived in, lived happily ever after.”
Dambuza listened to the song of Nana’s voice and felt the medicine of her fingers and soon he was better. His problems receded and he was only a man lying in a woman’s lap in the breeze of an African night and that was all there was in the world. He recognised the story, of course. He knew it was Delly trying to tell Nana the truth about her father, but not having the courage to tell her everything. It was a beautiful story, a story he hoped would come true.
Dambuza woke up and looked around. He was in his bedroom. It was dark outside the window, but the sound of the rooster three houses away told him morning was not far away and next to him lying in his arms was Nana. That’s all he knew. How they got there, what happened between that point and now, these things were a mystery to him.
“Good morning,” Nana said.
Dambuza looked under the blankets and they were both wearing their clothes so that told him an important detail. “Did you bring me home?”
“Yes, and I hope you don’t mind me staying over.”
“No, I need to admit I’m a bit foggy on what took place, though. Sorry.”
“Nothing took place. You were very sleepy, I drove you here and then we lay down on the bed and fell asleep. That’s it. Promise.”
Dambuza remembered the story and Nana massaging his head. “Yes, okay, it’s coming back. Thanks for giving me a break last night though I’m not sure I deserved it. I didn’t mean to run out on you at Chuck’s, I didn’t mean to kiss you either. I was working on autopilot I think.”
Nana sat up in bed, a sign that some serious talk was about to happen. Dambuza sat up too. “You promised me an explanation,” Nana said. “Any chance I might get it now?”
“Yes, yes I did. Okay… that night, I didn’t want to start anything because Bontle was coming, my ex-wife. She came on Friday. She’d called, she wanted to see me. She wanted to get back together.”
“Back together? Wasn’t she the one who initiated the divorce?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t really matter. It could have been either one of us, she was just first.”
“So what happened?”
“Yeah, well she came. I was really trying not to feel. Nana, I want to be honest with you, completely. I can’t lie and say I don’t love Bontle, I do, I love her. And I feel sick from missing my kids and I can’t even think about what a divorce is going to do to them. I wanted it all to be fixed. I wanted us to be a family again. When she said she wanted to get back together, I tried not to be happy, tried not to feel excited. I thought I was doing okay. I wasn’t.”
“And then there’s you. We have something. I’m not sure it’s very healthy, healthy for either of us, but then too, I’m not sure I’m built for health, mental or otherwise. I’m just banging along. So now Bontle was here and I’d kissed you and I wanted my family back and I couldn’t stand that Bontle had been with someone else and then there was that Tebogo at the bar. …It’s a mess…I’m a mess. It’s just a huge fucking complicated mess. The first night it was working with Bontle and by morning it was gone. We can’t be together, at least now, maybe never.”
Dambuza stopped. He’d never said that out loud before, that he and Bontle might really and truly be finished. He’d held out that all of this was temporary or not real somehow, that he and Bontle would get back together some way, sometime. But when he said that, when he admitted the possibility that they wouldn’t, it all seemed suddenly real. It could happen. For a moment he couldn’t breathe with the thought of it, he felt sick.
Nana grabbed him in her arms and held him, rocking gently. And then it happened, the thing he never wanted, he heard himself sobbing in her arms. A Motswana man crying in a woman’s arms? But he couldn’t stop himself. Wild messy waves of emotions poured out of his body and he could stop none of it. When the room became silent again, he couldn’t say how much time had passed. He laid back weak from what had happened and then he was embarrassed.
“Nana…I…I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened…”
“No, say nothing. God, Dambuza, you’ve had a horrible time. How long did you think you could hold it in?”
He lay back and she crawled into the crook of his arm. He held her and it felt wonderful. He thought about the night before and the story she’d told him, a story Delly had told her as a young girl. But he knew it wasn’t just a story. He knew Delly had told her a wish. Perhaps he was wrong to reveal what he was about to, but he felt beholden to Nana and he wanted to return a gift to her.
“Your story last night, the one Delly told you…” Dambuza started.
“Yes?” Nana looked up at him.
“It’s not a story,” Dambuza said. He explained what Delly had told him about Nana’s father and her grandmother waiting for her return. “Please don’t blame Delly for not telling you. She was scared.”
Nana listened carefully. “No, I never would. I completely understand what Mum did. But I must go to her. I must go to my grandmother. She’s waiting for me.”
“Yes, yes you should.”
“Yes, quickly. As soon as I’m sure Neo is alright, I’m going. I’ll go with Delly if she’ll agree.” She got out of bed, suddenly very excited. Then she got back in bed and kissed Dambuza. “Thanks. You’ll never know what a wonderful thing you’ve done for me. I know you think you’re a mess, an emotional mess, someone set out to make a wreck of everything he touches, but you’re wrong. You’re a blessing, and, honestly, everyone you touch is made better by you.”
She jumped out of the bed. By the time he got up, she was gone.
“Howzit Dambuza?” Blue said when he got to the station. “Hey where’s that woman of yours?”
“Blue, you nearly lost your tongue last time she was here, what do you want her for now?”
“Just wondering. Hey, the boss says you should pass by his office when you arrive.”
Tito was on the phone when Dambuza got to his office. “Ee,” he said. “Okay, I’ve got it. I expected as much.”
He hung up the phone. “Well that was Manga the pathologist. About that dead young woman, Annah Ditiro, she was strangled, dead before they threw her in the river.”
“Has anyone found Pops yet?” Dambuza asked.
“No, and now we have that riled up group looking for him too. It’s making it all more problematic. I really do not know what has happened to this town. And we can’t seem to make any headway in this case. Just more and more problems.”
The phone rang. Tito listened but said little. He hung up and looked at Dambuza for a moment before speaking, his face fallen. “Well... they found Pops.”
“Where? Is he talking?”
“Nope, he’s not talking. They found him out past Khwai. Seems he found a bit of guilt for what he’d done,” Tito said. “They found him dead, hanging from a tree.”