Baleka could hear George coughing in his bed. He’d had a high fever for two days and the people were not coming. They hadn’t even brought food or water the day before. Without water, she had nothing to cool George off with. She was scared he would die and she’d be locked in here forever all alone. No one would even find her skeleton in this dungeon.
Baleka used to think her mother’s church was a useless addiction, but she found herself praying to a god she wasn’t even sure was out there. She needed to get out of this room. Keeping control of things had been what had kept her sane. She kept track of the days, she kept track of when they brought food, she made her bed at a certain time, tried to regulate her day so the hours didn’t stretch out to infinity, to a place she could not control.
But she missed a few days while George was sick and now she couldn’t settle her mind to sort out how many days she’d been locked up in here. That mistake, not keeping track, that loss of control, set her on a path where everything seemed uncontrollable, everything seemed random and with no sense. And now they hadn’t come with food and water and George was sick and she wasn’t sure she had the mental strength she thought she had.
She tried to see her daughter Penny’s face, but she couldn’t. Or imagine Les’s hands on her body, but they weren’t there. Her life, her real life, was disappearing no matter how hard she tried to hold tightly to it. All she could think about was this dark room, the tiny hole of light near the ceiling, and George dying in his bed.
She pulled two beds near the window high up on the wall. She managed to lift one bed on top of the other, though the effort had her panting, and she climbed up to the window. It was just a slit in the wall, she couldn’t even fit her fingers through it, but she needed the air. She could only see the sand since the window was even with the level of the land. The room was almost entirely underground. This made her know that these people, whoever they were, had planned for a long time to put them there. They’d made this room just for them, as a prison for them.
She climbed down feeling worse than before. Just then she heard the footsteps and the cart. They were bringing food. At least. At least she would have water to cool George down. The hand came through the slot and, though she hadn’t planned it, she grabbed it with all the strength she had. That hand was the only contact she had with the outside world. She felt desperate. All the days until then she’d had hope, but today, after almost a month in the room, she felt lost.
She grabbed the hand and held tightly. The person struggled but Baleka held firmly. “Please, please I beg of you! Please let me go. I’ll not speak a word of what you’ve done to us. Please, I can’t take anymore! I think I’ll go mad if I don’t get out of here!”
The hand jerked hard and got away and Baleka fell to the floor. She heard the footsteps disappearing without a word. Baleka listened to the footsteps receding and the sound of the cart lessening and she was sure she would not be able to take another day in this room. She was sure that day would be her last.
Dambuza was dreaming that he was in his car and his cellphone was ringing. He was looking and looking for it but he couldn’t find it. Then he realised it was not in his dream, his cellphone was actually ringing, and he climbed his way awake. He mumbled into the phone, “Hello?”
“Dambuza, did I wake you?”
“Bontle? Bontle? What time is it?”
His waking life began to reassemble in his brain and he remembered today was the day Bontle came to Maun. “Okay, hi, so what’s up?”
“I’ll leave after Smallie knocks off school, about two, can you get me at the bus rank at about 6:30?”
“I can’t wait to see you. I miss you so much. I love you, Dambuza.”
She sounded do hopeful, but still he couldn’t say it. He wouldn’t say it until he was sure it was true, until he knew this was not a game. He didn’t trust her, and more than that he didn’t trust himself. He decided caution was the way to proceed. All he could manage was, “Okay see you then.”
He hung up. As usual his head was pounding. He really needed to start drinking less there was no way this was healthy. He stumbled to the kitchen and opened a beer to burn off the babalase and then got in the shower.
Thanks to Bontle’s call, he was early to work, it was just seven when he pulled into the station, but still Tito beat him to it. What time did this guy wake up? Dambuza thought. It was good, though, now they could get to work on Lebo early. If he was the career criminal everyone said he was, he might not hand over the information they needed as easily at Dambuza would like.
He popped his head in the boss’s office. “I’m here. You think you’d be ready to get a head start on Lebo?”
“Dumela, Dambuza. Sure I’ll meet you there.”
Dambuza asked one of the uniformed officers to bring the prisoner into the back interrogation room. On his way, Dambuza spotted Renet in the cell next to Lebo. He wondered what they talked about all night. Whatever it was it didn’t seem to mitigate Renet’s arrogance.
“Where’s my lawyer? I can’t stay in this filthy place another minute! I’m going to sue you for false imprisonment. Get me out of here!” Renet shouted as Dambuza passed.
“You better get used to it, Prof, I’ve got a feeling you will be spending quite a bit more time behind bars.”
Renet shouted something Dambuza didn’t hear as he walked to the end of the hallway. Dambuza wondered why the other one, Pops, was not in the cell. They must have got him by now, he thought. They’d had the entire weekend.
Inside the interrogation room, he set his cup of coffee on the table and sat down waiting for Lebo to be brought in. When he was, he wore leg irons and handcuffs. Dambuza told the uniformed officer to leave them in place. It helped to keep the culprit vulnerable.
Dambuza waited for the uniformed officer to leave and Tito to arrive.
“Dumela Lebo,” the boss said when he arrived. “Did you sleep well?”
“Ee Rra,” the young man said.
He might be a career criminal, but he still had some shreds of respect. The boy had a thick scar across his cheek, from a knife fight Dambuza suspected. He was thin and wiry and Dambuza could see life hadn’t been kind to him, but still Dambuza wasn’t sure he was as hard as he was making out. Somewhere behind his thug shell was the little boy his mother had once held in her arms. Dambuza sensed something and he wondered if they were on the right track after all. There was something not quite right.
“Lebo, what were you up to yesterday?” Tito asked the boy when he arrived.
“We have a witness that says otherwise,” Tito said.
“Yeah, maybe she’s lying. We weren’t doing nothing. Playing is all.”
“So you know the girl we’re talking about?” Tito asked.
“Yeah... but it was nothing. I didn’t do nothing.”
“You know about the people who have been grabbed in the bush?” Dambuza asked. Lebo shrugged. “You’re telling me you live in Maun, the whole place scared to death, and you haven’t heard anything about the people who have vanished?” Dambuza asked.
“Okay…sure I heard. So what? That don’t mean nothing to me.”
Tito lowered his voice to a fatherly tone. “Listen Lebo this isn’t like stealing a bar a soap from Spar or nicking a carton of Chibuku from the spot. Okay? It’s not going to be a few lashings at the kgotla. This is murder. Five counts. You’re going to hang, my son. Imagine your mother having to deal with that.”
Lebo looked at Tito as if to see if he was telling the truth or just trying to trick him. “I didn’t murder nobody. Neither of us did.”
“Who are you talking about? Who’s us?”
Lebo shut his lips tighter as if to stop the accidental dropping of words from his lips. He wasn’t very clever, like most criminals.
“Listen you don’t need to tell us, we know already. Pops Letsatsi. You and Pops were out in the bush in his mother’s car trying to catch another victim for your boss. The way I see it you have a few options. You can keep quiet and you and Pops get tried for murder, five counts. Or you tell us who put you up to this and we catch the real killers,” Dambuza said.
“Do you think I’m a fool?” Lebo said. “These people are not joking around. I give you their names and I’m dead anyway.”
Tito tried again. “Listen, Lebo, we only need one of you to talk. If we find Pops and he tells us, then we’ll make the deal with him. You’ll be out. You’ll take the full weight of the law for kidnapping and murder. Why don’t you be clever and tell us who sent you out to collect that girl?”
“I know Pops, he’s not going to tell you nothing. He’s more a coward than me.”
Dambuza remembered Renet in the cell next to Lebo the whole night. “So, did he say something to you last night?”
“Say something to me last night? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lebo said.
“Come on, are you saying the whole night he didn’t say anything? He didn’t threaten you in some way? Listen Lebo, there is no way he’s getting out. You give us the information we need and he stays behind bars, for the rest of his life,” Dambuza said.
“Who?” Lebo asked. He looked at Tito. “Who’s he talking about?”
“He’s talking about the white man in the cell next to yours, Professor Renet,” Tito said.
“He didn’t say nothing to me,” Lebo said. “Why would he? I don’t know him. I got nothing else to say. You don’t have nothing on me. So a girl claims I was trying to get her in the car. So what? You got nothing.”
Dambuza wondered if he was lying. If he was he was putting on a cool face. Did he really not know Renet? It could be maybe there was an intermediary. Renet would not be stupid enough to organise Pops and Lebo on his own, there would be so many witnesses ready to say they saw a white guy moving around the shebeens. It was possible Lebo didn’t know Renet, and Renet maybe didn’t know him either, but they could both be involved in the disappearances, a middle man in between them.
Dambuza thought more about everything the night before. Since the bodies in the bush were not for the disappeared people, it could be they were still alive somewhere. If they were, Renet and Lebo were their only link to where they were. But Lebo was right, they didn’t have much on him. The girl’s testimony would probably get nothing more than common nuisance unless they could get something else, unless they could link it with the disappearances. It could be two young men troubling a girl in the bush.
They needed Pops, Lebo was not budging at least for now. Maybe Pops would be better.
Dambuza asked around to find out what happened, why they hadn’t collected Pops. The uniformed officers said they’d been trawling Maun looking for Pop’s mum’s Hilux. Still no luck, but they were on it and Blue assured Dambuza they’d find it before the day was over. Dambuza was disappointed about the news; he felt nervous somehow, but couldn’t put his finger on why. He put it down to everything going on and forgot about it. He retired to his office to catch up on paperwork. Just as he sat down he got a phone call. “Dambuza Chakalisa.”
“It’s me Delly. We’ve got a problem out here. Any chance you can come by?”
Dambuza could hear in Delly’s voice that she was upset. “Sure I’ll be there in ten.”
Nana sat next to Neo on the sofa. She held a bag of frozen peas against Neo’s lip and another on her eye. She’d been beaten badly. The eye was blue around the outside and bloodshot. Her arms had bruises where he’d grabbed her. Her lip was cut and had been bleeding if the blood down her night dress was anything to go by.
“Gopolong pitched up about one. I forgot the key under the gas cylinder. I often leave it out there for my little sister if I get home late. He knew where it was. I was sleeping and he just pulled me out of the bed…pulled me out and started beating me. He was crazy…. It was like he was possessed. I knew he had a temper but…I never thought…I would have never let him in my life if I knew….” She began to cry and Nana held her close.
“It’s not your fault, Neo, it’s his- the asshole,” Nana said. “Let Dambuza collect him and lock him up. He needs to fucking be in jail for doing this.”
Delly came up with fresh bags of peas and took the other ones back to the freezer. “Neo, honey, he could do this to someone else. You need to let the police arrest him.”
“I can’t, Delly, I can’t do it. He’s married. What was I thinking? I should have never started anything. I was wrong.” Neo cried into Nana’s shoulder.
Nana looked up at Dambuza and shook her head. She told him when he arrived that they had been trying to convince her to go to the police ever since she got to the house, but she refused. Delly indicated Dambuza should go to the office with her and Dambuza followed her out, leaving Nana and Nelly alone.
“That sonofabitch could have killed her,” she spat low enough so that they couldn’t hear in the other room. “The way he beat her? He could have killed her Dambuza.”
“Yes,” Dambuza said. “She needs to press charges.”
“You heard her, that’s not going to happen. I say we go and sort him out. Me and you,” Delly said.
“You know I was with him last night. I was probably the last one with him before he left for her place. I knew he was angry. And I knew he was getting drunker and drunker. I should have stayed, I might have stopped it all,” Dambuza said. “No, you don’t need to get involved. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of him myself.”
It wasn’t quite lunch yet and Dambuza didn’t have the patience to wait in the parking lot for the time to pass. He pulled up at Hope Institute and went in. He found Dr Mogwera from the party in Neo’s office walking down the hall.
“You’re Nana’s friend, the police officer right?” Dr Mogwera asked when he saw him. He shook Dambuza’s hand, happy to see him again.
“Yes, Dambuza Chakalisa. I wondered if you know where I might find Dr Goplong Tlholego?”
He scrunched his face in disapproval. “I’d like to know where he is too. Always missing that one, never even came in this morning. Now Dr. Mafhoko is also gone, I understand she called in sick. I really don’t understand our countrymen, Rre Chakalisa, not serious about work at all. We’re doing important things here and yet they’d all rather be off playing.”
Dambuza didn’t trouble himself to tell the good doctor that Neo was far from playing. He’d see that soon enough. It would take weeks for the bruising to go down. All of them would see what Gopolong had done to her.
“Do you happen to know where Gopolong lives?”
The doctor gave Dambuza directions. He knew what he was about to do could get him in trouble, fired, maybe worse, but he didn’t care. He kept thinking of the words Gopolong had used about Neo and Nana the night before. Why did men think they could treat women with such disrespect? Setswana culture encompassed botho, you are defined by how you treat others, your humanity only apparent through the humanity you showed others. But yet men who wanted to “punish” their women for misbehaviour liked to pull out the Setswana card believing culture allowed them to behave so abominably. It was a distortion of culture.
Women were to be protected and valued, that was a man’s job. Dambuza was the furthest from a good husband, but he’d never laid a hand on Bontle, he never would, no matter how angry she made him. He detested men who couldn’t control their anger and took it out on the weakest around them- women and children- such men were cowards of the first order according to him.
By the time he arrived at the house Gopolong rented, Dambuza was calm but determined. This man needed to be taught a lesson, a lesson he’d never forget. He knocked on the door and waited. There was no answer so he knocked again. Just then a black BMW with dark shaded windows pulled into the driveway. Dambuza watched as Gopolong got out of the car. His face strained. When he saw Dambuza, he smiled, but it did little to mitigate the guilt plastered across his face. He slammed the door shut, but it bounced back, something was caught. Gopolong reached down and picked up a woman’s shoe that had fallen out, and threw it back in the car slamming the door after it. Likely belonging to another one of his victims, Dambuza thought, perhaps not yet but eventually. Men like Gopolong always ended up beating their women, no matter how nice it started out.
“Mr Policeman? What did I do to deserve a visit from you so early in the day?” Gopolong asked as he walked toward the house, trying to be light when only heaviness surrounded them.
“Perhaps we should discuss it inside.” Dambuza smiled, a cat’s smile, revealing nothing.
Once inside Gopolong turned just as Dambuza’s fist came whirling through the air knocking him back against the sofa. Before he could say a thing, Dambuza was on him. He made sure to leave a black eye and a split lip behind so the creep might know a bit about how Neo was feeling. As Dambuza expected, and as was usually the case, Gopolong was a coward when he was up against someone his own size.
Dambuza stood up and Gopolong groaned on the sofa holding his lip. “You can’t just come and do that to me,” he said ineffectually.
“Is it? But I did, didn’t I? And I’ll come and do it again if you lay another hand on Neo.”
“I’ll report you. You’ll lose your job.”
“Go ahead. I’m happy to lose my job if it means I taught rubbish like you something. I’m sure if they see what you did to that woman, they’ll treat me with kid gloves. You, on the other hand, might get another dose of what I just gave you, you piece of shit.”
Dambuza left Gopolong on the sofa still moaning in pain and he headed back toward town. Beating up assholes was hard work. He needed a beer and some serious nourishment.
Dambuza was just digging into a big plate of mokoto and paleche when Nana entered Chuck’s. She got a beer and headed for his table.
“So?” she asked when she sat down.
“I took care of it. He won’t touch her again,” Dambuza said.
“Thanks,” she said quietly.
“I do that kind of work more for me than anyone else. Great stress reliever,” Dambuza said.
“Yeah, well… whatever. But thanks anyway. You know how I feel about Neo. God, I can’t believe that asshole did that to her. Who does he think he is?”
“Let’s just forget about it. He won’t hurt her again. It’s over. She must stay away from guys like that. What did she see in him anyway?”
“You know women. She has a type she likes, he’s one of them. Arrogant, over confidant, whatever you want to call it, there’s an attraction there for some women.”
“You on the other hand,” Dambuza said smiling. “Go for the down-on-their-luck, scruffier-the-better, is that it?”
Nana laughed. “You’re kind of hard on yourself, don’t you think?”
Dambuza shrugged his shoulders.
“Any chance I might be able to take you out to dinner tonight to say thank you?” Nana asked.
“No… I can’t really… not tonight.” He went back to eating and hoped Nana wouldn’t dig. He had no interest in telling her that his almost ex-wife was coming to town and it looked like she wanted to get back together. He didn’t want that discussion with Nana, actually he didn’t want that discussion with anyone. Complications on top of complications.
Dambuza had been paying attention to Nana and hadn’t noticed the woman coming up to him until it was too late. “Hey there Mr. Dambuza, how you doing, baby?”
Dambuza looked up into Tebby’s smiling face. “Dumela Tebogo. Le kae?”
“So how come you never called?” she asked. “You said you would.”
Dambuza saw Tebby through Nana’s eyes and knew she saw exactly what was going on. Tebby wore a low-cut, cheap pink blouse and denim shorts, almost inappropriate for a woman her age, wearing them showed she was trying to hold onto something that was almost gone completely. There really was nowhere to hide so Dambuza made the decision not to.
“You know what, Tebby, I’ve been swamped with work. I’ll give you a call as soon as I get a free moment. Okay? I’m just having a meeting here and all…”
“Sure, Baby, no problem. I’ll be waiting on that call. I had a lot of fun the other night.” Tebby walked away toward the bar.
“So’s that your date tonight?” Nana asked.
“Okay… okay, this I don’t want right now. I have a thousand things I need to be doing and I thought we agreed you and I were not going to work, at least like that. Friends, fine, but anything else, Nana. I’m not ready for this.”
Nana held her head in the cup of her hand her elbow resting on the table. She looked up at him with sad eyes and he couldn’t help his heart from quivering in his chest. God, she was beautiful and he’d be a liar if he didn’t admit he was attracted to her. Life was just too difficult, too complicated, too much of a mess. Always-always in his case. Nana was a woman that need more than the half measures he was able to give her right now.
“Sorry,” she said. “I keep agreeing to your sensible proposals and then my head just goes off on one of its tangents where you rescue me and take me off to wonderland. I like that movie, I have little interest in renting a new one it seems. It just plays over and over in my head.”
Nana dragged her finger down the length of Dambuza’s arm agonizingly slowly. It felt like a drug had taken over, with every inch her finger moved he could feel his pulse going up, his heart beat increasing, he was afraid he was panting. He couldn’t take this. Before he knew it he leaned forward and kissed her, and kissed her again, and deeper and deeper and was sure he was gone, but then he pulled away. No. No. He could not do this. He could not do this, not now, not today.
He stood up, threw money on the table and walked out of Chuck’s without another word.