Dambuza opened his fourth beer and picked up his cellphone. He dialled the number for his house- his former house- he reminded himself. It rang three times.
For a moment Dambuza couldn’t speak. He was surprised to feel tears caught in his throat. It was tough moving away from his kids, but with the divorce pending the whole move took on more serious dimensions. In Botswana husbands never got custody of their kids it’s just the way it was, and besides Dambuza didn’t think he would fight Bontle for custody anyway. She was an excellent mother, they needed her. But he needed them. He needed his kids. He didn’t want to become superfluous, a man they saw on weekends, who they only cared about for what presents he could give them, what money he popped out. Maybe Bontle’s new man would move in and take his place. He knew he wouldn’t be able to handle that and he tried to keep his mind away from the thought.
“Hey Thabang, it’s me your Dad.”
“Hi Daddy. How’s Maun? Have you seen any elephants?” Thabang was ten years old going on thirty. A serious little boy with a wide range of interests. He’d been so excited when he heard Dambuza was moving to Maun since he loved the wildlife of Botswana.
Dambuza told his middle child all about the hippo fight at Delly’s. He was duly impressed. “So when are you gonna come and get us?”
“Definitely next school holiday. I’ll even splurge on a trip out to the Delta, maybe even a mekoro ride.”
“Cool! Ludo wants to talk to you. See you soon Daddy, love you!”
Dambuza wiped away the tears he hadn’t known were falling down his face and finished his beer. He could hear Ludo telling her younger brother to go out she wanted privacy.
“Hey girlie, how’s everything? Where’s your Mum?”
“She took Smallie shoe shopping, he lost one of his shoes at crèche again.”
“So how’s school?”
“Fine. Listen Daddy Mum told me. About the divorce.”
His daughter, a young woman now, about to finish her form five, she’d likely be going to university the next year. Bontle was right to tell her. She needed to know such things. From her voice she seemed to be handling everything better than him.
“Yeah, well, these things happen. I didn’t think we were to that point, but apparently your mother did,” Dambuza said. “But no matter what, Ludo, you’ve got to know I am your father, I love you, and I always need to be part of your lives. I intend to be there as much as I can for you guys.”
“Yeah, I know, Dad. Mom told me there was no way she would keep us from you. I told her she needed to promise me that. I haven’t told the boys. I think it’s better we all wait until you’re here.”
“I think that’s a good idea.” Suddenly the photo of the missing girl, Phatsimo, came into his mind. “Ludo?”
“Be careful, okay?”
“Oh Daddy, you know me I’m always careful.”
Dambuza smiled because she was right. Because he and Bontle had spent years in one long argument, behaving like children, Ludo was forced to be the adult. Forced to become an adult too soon he thought. Even now at seventeen she was the only one talking freely about the divorce, setting parameters. All he and Bontle could do was jump back on their well worn treadmill.
“I’m proud of you, Ludo, and I love you. You know that don’t you?”
“I know that, Daddy.”
Dambuza hung up the phone then opened another beer and pulled his new bottle of gin a bit closer.
Baleka used a spoon to try to force open the young girl’s mouth. For two days no one had been taken out. They were given food, but no one entered the room. Phatsimo was getting worse. They had taken her out three days before and she came back a bit better. She was awake and able to walk, but she was still hot. That was three days ago and since then everything had got worse. She no longer woke up. She was always burning hot so Baleka and George kept her constantly wrapped in wet blankets. They took turns forcing liquids into her. They mashed up food and force fed her. Despite what she told George, Baleka knew Phatsimo was dying.
George sat on the bed opposite them looking at the prostrate girl. He rocked back and force, Baleka thought he likely didn’t even know he was doing it. “What do they want from us? Why did they bring us here?” he said in desperation.
“I don’t know,” Baleka said. “I don’t understand. You may be right. Maybe it’s for muti. Or something else. We don’t know exactly what they do to us out there. Maybe they rape us. How would we know?”
“We’d know,” George said in a voice that meant he wanted no more discussion along those lines. “Is she going to die?”
“No, she’s not going to die. I have a plan. The next time they push the food in I’ll shout at them. I’ll tell them how sick she is. That they must take her out. They must get her to a doctor. They seem to want to keep us alive for some reason. Why would they feed us? They’ll take her out and get her medicine. She’ll be fine.”
She knew this wasn’t the best plan but it was all she had. Phatsimo was going to die in this room and then Baleka would have to deal with George. She knew if Phatsimo died, George would give up. He’d been in here too long; Phatsimo was what kept him alive. Without her he would fall apart. If they were going to kill Phatsimo when they took her out, at least it would be away from this room. She could convince George that they had cured Phatsimo and let her go, just as they had the others. She knew she would be able to convince George of that. She had to. Because she also knew if George died, and she was left alone in this room, she would be finished. She wouldn’t last. She needed George as much as he needed Phatsimo.
Baleka spoke as if she was speaking of people with some sense. But none of this made sense. Why were they being kept here? She didn’t know. What happened to the others who had been kept? Again she didn’t know. Did they finally let them free somewhere? Baleka tried to hope that maybe they did, otherwise why did their captors cover their faces? It was not as if they could escape. She hoped the covered faces meant one day they would be let free too. It was one of the many untenable thoughts she clung to.
Later Baleka heard a person coming; they pushed a trolley so she knew it was food. She waited by the slot where the food was pushed in. She waited and was ready. When the gloved hand came through the slot, she grabbed it tightly with both hands. The person struggled to get loose, but Baleka held tight, as hard as she could, bracing herself with her feet firmly on the wall below the slot.
“You need to take Phatsimo out! She’s sick!” she yelled out the slot.
The person continued to struggle but then stopped. “Okay,” a man’s voice said. He was a Motswana, Baleka could tell from his voice. “I’ll come back with someone, just let me go.”
Baleka thought for a moment, she wasn’t sure she could trust him, but what choice did she have? She let go. The man retreated quickly.
Then she and George waited. It was hard to keep track of time, it seemed like at least an hour had passed, maybe two. They were not coming, she decided, and regretted letting go. Just when she was positive nothing was going to happen, she heard people walking toward them, there were two- and no trolley. They entered and took Phatsimo out.
That was two days ago now. The sun rose and Baleka scratched another line into her makeshift calendar. Twelve days. She’d been gone from Penny and Moarabi and Les and her mother for twelve days. It seemed so much longer. She could barely remember her life before this grey, stinking room. She got up and didn’t notice George was already up and sitting near the door, his place of vigil since they took Phatsimo out.
“Do you think she’ll come back today?” he asked.
“I don’t know, George. She was pretty sick. I expect she’s at the hospital. She’ll come back when she’s better.” Baleka knew that was what George needed to hear.
“Okay. I’ll be waiting for her then. I’ll be waiting right here.”
Delly put the bottle of Jack Daniels and a shot glass between them then handed Dambuza a beer. “You look like shit, my friend,” she said sitting down and spreading her long legs out on the coffee table.
“Not sure why. Let’s see- I have five missing, likely dead, people and not a single sensible lead. My wife is divorcing me. I miss my kids like crazy. And despite what I tell the rest of the world, I really do drink more than I should.” As he spoke, he reached forward and poured himself a shot of whiskey and dumped it with a satisfying gurgle down his throat.
“And you’re falling in love with a woman not ready to take on a new man,” Delly said keeping her eyes fixed out over the river. They’d been sitting on Delly’s back veranda ever since Dambuza pitched up after work.
Dambuza sat up. “What? You’re crazy!”
“Am I?” Delly looked at him, one eyebrow arching on her permanently tanned forehead.
Dambuza stood up and walked to the edge of the veranda. He was getting used to the place, he no longer needed to look over his shoulder every two minutes expecting some wild animal to cut him in two. The sun was just setting and the river was calm, reflecting back the oranges and pinks of the sky. He could smell the spicy scent of wild sage and heard the contented grunts of Kgosi, king of all he viewed, at least for the time being.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. What I’m starting to realise is that maybe Bontle has been right all along. I’m too messed up to be with anyone. I need to get me sorted out or I’ll continue to be the relationship equivalent of an elephant in a china shop.”
“Listen Dambuza, God knows I love my daughter. But she has the propensity for choosing men who are absolutely wrong for her. Look at that Hamilton bloke? What is she thinking? I think she’s lost her mind.”
“He’s a doctor. Normal mothers would be happy about that,” Dambuza said smiling cheekily. He knew Delly didn’t take normal as a compliment.
“Not this mother. Security and money are not the issue here. They’re meaningless. But there’s something about you, despite all of the cursory descriptions you’ve been so kind to point out, there is something about you that I think is right for my daughter.” She poured herself a shot and drank it. “But, frankly, right now, she’s only going to cause you more problems. I can see that already.”
“Don’t worry, Delly, we’re taking it slow. Nothing serious.”
“Those are the words I’m hearing comin’ out of your mouth.” Delly ran her hands over Bob’s big head that he plopped on her bare knees.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means just what I said. You’re talking the talk but, my friend, you’re not walking the walk. And I can see you are over your head for my daughter.”
Dambuza sat back down next to Delly. “Okay, I’ll admit, I like her- but we’re both a bit of mess, we know that, we’ve spoke about it. She just killed her boyfriend for God’s sake.”
“So she told you all that?” Delly ran the thought around her mind for a moment. “Good. Honesty. I like it.”
“Okay, this is weird. Can we stop? I think there may well be ethical issues about me talking to you about your daughter when I’m trying to date her.”
Delly laughed and Bob sat up and howled, his big head thrown back much the same as his owner’s. “Okay… yeah, you’re probably right,” Delly conceded and then changed the subject. “Lex came back to work today. The chief called the search off.”
“Just as well. She’s no longer out in the bush anyway. They’d have found something by now if she was. I went out to the cattleposts and spoke with Rre Johane, George Ndlovu’s employer. Mostly a waste of time, except I did discover a wad of money in a tin under George’s bed. How does a guy save up so much money and then go home without it?”
“He doesn’t. I never bought that story from the beginning.”
“So for a week’s worth of investigating all I’ve proven is that Phatsimo was not taken by her boyfriend and George didn’t go back to Zimbabwe. Fuck all really. No closer to finding the answers than I was when I started.” Dambuza poured himself another shot.
Delly got up and went inside to get them two more beers. “I might have something. I was over to UB today and a friend there reminded me about something that might be important.”
Dambuza became excited, any lead at this point was a cause for celebration. “Yeah… what’s that?”
“A guy there. Creepy guy, who just happened to pitch up last year February.”
“Why’s he creepy?”
“He’s French, not that that makes him necessarily creepy. He came here to do research in the Delta. He works with bugs. My friend says he likes moving around in the bush, always alone. Odd with people too. Also it appears he was friendly with one of the disappeared.”
“The depressed one from Makalamabedi. Apparently he also suffers from depression, they met at some support group they were trying to start up at the government hospital.”
Dambuza sat back. Normally the fact that the guy walks in the bush and knew one of the disappeared would mean nothing, but Dambuza was struggling. He really didn’t want to fail on his first case in Maun. “Tiny. That’s an odd friendship. An uneducated village woman and a university researcher? But still damn little to place him as our guy.”
“I agree, but listen, Dambuza, I met this guy. There is something seriously wrong about him. It’s his eyes. I’ve never seen those kind of eyes. They’re flat, like a dead person’s eyes, nothing inside of them. Like a shark. You get this feeling that he doesn’t get human emotions; they’re not part of his make-up. He gave me the spooks.”
Dambuza feigned surprise. “Gave the brave and notorious Delly Woods the spooks? Well I’ll need to check that one out just for the novelty of it,” he teased.
Dambuza’s cellphone rang. He looked and it was Nana. “Hello?”
“Hi Dambuza, what you up to on this Friday night?”
“Actually, I’m with your mother.”
“I have a bit of a problem that I thought you might turn to your advantage. I’m at work and this heap of a car has decided it doesn’t feel like going home. I’ve called the mechanics who have taken it away. So… I need a lift home and thought maybe we could go for dinner on the way.”
“Well I can’t leave you stranded can I? I’ll be there in ten.”
The impressive Hope Institute seemed an all together different place at night. Most of the people were gone and the long empty halls were not very inviting with their shadowed corners and weak fluorescent lights. The guard at the door told Dambuza he’d find Nana on the top floor, the corner office. As he neared it, he heard voices.
“Tsena!” he heard Nana yell from behind the door in response to his knock. “Oh Detective you’ve come. We were just having a small impromptu party while I waited. A “my-car-has-kicked-the-bucket” party.”
Nana was sitting on the desk already a bit tipsy Dambuza could see. She wore a straight black skirt and a white silk blouse unbuttoned too far for his preference, but apparently not far enough for the young man standing next to the desk who stood leering down her shirt hoping for a peek. It looked like the party had been on for some time. Dambuza felt unwelcome and considered turning around and going back out the door.
Nana slipped off the desk and took Dambuza’s hand giving him a kiss on the cheek which turned his mood around considerably.
“My knight in shining armour.” Like instant medicine he felt better. “Let me introduce everyone. This,” she said pointing to the young lecherous one, “is Dr. Tlholego.”
Dr Tlholego was young but that was about all he had in his favour. He was tall and very thin. His skin was pocked with scars from a bad case of acne in his youth. He had that strange way of ugly successful men, who despite everything that placed them at the bottom of the pack, took an aggressive, almost domineering position. Dambuza supposed success was attractive to some women, attractive enough to ignore his litany of physical flaws. From the way he behaved, Dambuza could see that he was under the impression he had a serious chance with Nana.
“Dumela, Detective. Call me Gopolong.”
“Gopolong,” Dambuza said taking his hand and noticing that even though he’d been making moves on Nana he wore a wedding band, not that Dambuza had room to judge, but still.
Sitting side by side on a sofa along the window were a woman and a man, both wearing white lab coats. “This is my girl, Neo, Dr. Mafhoko I mean. We grew up together in Maun. She’s the one who got me this job,” Nana said.
The small woman on the sofa stuck out her hand towards Dambuza, while giving Nana a stern look. “She got the job for herself. You want me arrested for corruption, Nana? He’s a cop you know.”
“In this place? Nepotism is almost company policy,” Nana said.
“Lovely to meet you, Neo.” Dambuza meant it. Her intelligent face and quick wit were very attractive.
“And this is the baby in the group- Leonard Walters. He’s an intern from America,” Nana said.
Leonard stood up, stumbled a bit either from too much alcohol or his foot being caught under the sofa. Once he righted himself he shook Dambuza’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Detective Dambuza.”
An older man sitting on the chair behind the desk stood up. “I hate to break up the party but I need to go, Nana. My wife just smsed that supper is ready and they’re waiting for me.”
“Disang, she’s got you by the balls, my brother,” Gopolong said, but no one laughed.
Disang, who Nana later told Dambuza was a senior researcher and medical doctor at the Institute, turned to the younger man. “No, I just have respect for my wife’s time and effort. You should learn some respect for yours as well, Dr Tlholego.”
Dambuza could see there was some serious history between these two men.
“Nana, Detective, enjoy your evening.” Turning to the others he said, “Go siame, bagaetsho.” And then he was gone.
Nana gave Dambuza am embarrassed smile. “Let me get you a drink.”
She went to a cupboard at the side of her spacious office and opened the door to reveal a fridge. Dambuza sat down in the chair Disang had vacated.
“So, Detective,” Gopolong asked. “I suppose Maun is a bit of a dead-end for a policeman’s career, not like Gaborone or Francistown. Cops are sent to Maun when they’ve made a mess of things. ”
This was a man not looking to be friends, Dambuza thought. He wasn’t going to take the bait. He had no interest in giving this idiot the impression that they were in the same league. “Yeah, maybe. It depends how you look at it.”
“How long have you been here in our glorious Maun?” Neo asked.
“Getting on a month now.”
Nana handed him his beer and sat down on the desk next to him with her arm around the back of the chair. Dambuza liked that. He could tell from his face that Gopolong didn’t.
“And how do you like our little town?” Neo asked.
“I like it. Like the people. A bit hot, but I’m getting used to it.”
“Yes, very hot,” Leonard said nodding his head. The group laughed.
“Our baby here turns bright red in any temperature above 30C,” Nana teased. Leonard promptly turned red though the air conditioned office was far below that.
“So how long are you here, Leonard?” Dambuza asked.
“Until Hamilton finishes working him to the bone,” Gopolong said. Dambuza got the impression Gopolong was not a fan of the learned doctor.
“It’s not like that,” Leonard tried.
“Isn’t it?” Neo said. Obviously the dislike of their boss was not the reserve for Gopolong. “Where does an intern, a medical intern from a prestigious school like Harvard Medical School no less, get asked to basically be the foreman for a factory?”
“But they’re manufacturing Total Protect, it’s not like it’s car making,” Nana tried.
“Ao! Nana-we, please. You’re just dazzled by his bright smile!” Neo said and they all laughed.
“What does the guy even do here? Sometimes I wonder if he’s even a doctor, Dr Hamilton Ride, some of the things he says makes me wonder,” Gopolong said.
“Gopolong- of course he’s a doctor. He’s well known and respected in America. He’s brilliant, if he wasn’t how did he come up with the Institute?” Nana said.
“All I have to say is WWW.” Gopolong smiled and Neo laughed.
“What?” Leonard asked confused. “What is WWW?”
“Wicked Witch of the West,” Nana said. “So you’re trying to say this whole project, the Institute, Total Protect, the other products in production is all Portia?”
“Open your eyes, Nana,” Neo said. “Without Portia none of this was going to happen.”
“I don’t believe it,” Nana said. “Portia? Her winning personality alone would have scared off all of the donors.”
Dambuza didn’t much care for Nana’s blind allegiance to Hamilton. But too he didn’t want to let Nana see that. He was still working the “light and easy” angle.
“Hamilton seems on top of things here,” Dambuza offered. “He managed to get our government to invest in the project, that’s something.”
“The only thing Hamilton is on top of is Portia,” Gopolong said. Neo burst out laughing and even Leonard laughed behind his hand.
“You’re such an ass, Gopolong. I wonder if you’re even a doctor,” Nana said getting annoyed.
“Check my certificates, they’re all there. UB, Johns Hopkins. I’m a doctor, sweetheart. Perhaps you’d like me to show you one day? Stop by and we can play doctor if you’d like.”
“Right, in your dreams. And besides I thought somewhere in Botswana there is a woman who has the unfortunate distinction of having to call herself your wife,” Nana said.
“Ouch! Eish, Nana, you play some hardball,” Neo said, then she stood up. “Listen I gotta go. I’m flying to Gabs on the early flight for a meeting. Lovely to meet you, Dambuza. Perhaps we’ll meet when my friend here is not in such a bitchy mood.”
She shook Dambuza’s hand and kissed Nana on the cheek.
“I am not in a bitchy mood,” Nana said.
Neo winked at Dambuza then she turned to the others. “Later Ma-Gents.”
Leonard also stood up to go. “Let’s go Gopolong. You promised you’d teach me how to play snooker tonight.”
Gopolong downed the last of his drink and left the glass on Nana’s desk. “Detective. Nana. We’re off. I need to relieve this man of some of his hard earned American dollars.”
When everyone was gone, Nana moved around collecting the tins and glasses and tidying up. Dambuza could tell she was not pleased with the conversation. He went to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Are you okay?”
She turned around in his arms. “Sure, it’s nothing. Gopolong’s a jerk. It’s nothing really… it’s just I feel like they give Hamilton a lot of flack around here. Like because he’s so handsome, he can’t be intelligent. But he is. He’s brilliant.”
“You’ll soon make me jealous.”
Nana kissed him. “Don’t be. It’s not like that, really. Hamilton is not my type. I was just passing the time.”
“So what about you? Too beautiful to be smart?”
Nana smiled and Dambuza was reminded as always how beautiful she was. Her thick luscious lips, her golden brown skin, her dimples. He could feel himself getting excited and he pulled away from her. “I’m hungry. Let’s find somewhere to eat.”