Africa Always Needs Guns
Vengeance, edited by Lee Child. Mulholland Books, April 3, 2012.
I'm totally excited to have my short story appear in the 2012 MWA anthology. Having Lee Child as an editor is icing on the cake.
A little bit of backstory about Valentin Vermeulen. He is Belgian, Flemish, to be correct, in his early forties, about six feet with a shock of blond hair, a strand of which usually hangs down in his face. He works as an investigator for the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services. That's the internal watchdog department that audits all UN operations and investigates fraud. He used to have a cushy job in New York City until one of his investigations (the oil-for-food scandal) pointed to some people high up in the hierarchy. That got him into trouble and, since then, he is sent to investigate problems in out of the way places
"Africa Always Needs Guns" takes place in the city of Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The eastern Congo was a site of much bloodshed and suffering during the DRC's wars that started in 1996. Vermeulen is sent there to investigate rumors of gun smuggling by UN contractors.
Some days everything works out. Valentin Vermeulen hadn't had one of those days in a while. He brushed a damp strand of blond hair from his broad forehead, a forehead inherited from generations of Flemish farmers. Like these ancestors, he waited for his luck to change
There was a slim chance it might. If, that is, the Antonov An-8 cargo plane was sufficiently late.
He looked over the shoulders of the Bangladeshi air traffic controller. The radar scope's scan beam raced in a circle like the hands of a clock on fast-forward. No blips. The plane was about an hour and a half behind schedule.
The reality of his assignment stared at him through the dirty windows of what passed for the control tower of the Bunia airport. The humid bush, a single asphalt runway, white UN helicopters parked on makeshift helipads, white armored personnel carriers parking at strategic positions, soldiers in blue helmets milling about—a peacekeeping operation at the end of the world.
The usual Congolese hangers-on—were they Hema or Lendu? He never could tell the difference—sat in the shady spots, hoping for a little job, cash or food. A quiet day in a very unquiet part of the world.
Vermeulen pulled a Gitane Papier Maïs from its blue pack and lit it. He was used to air conditioned offices in New York, pulling together evidence from files and interview transcripts. Sure there were trips to the field—Kosovo, Bosnia, even Cambodia once—but he always had his office in New York. Until he stepped on some important toes during the Iraq Oil-For-Food investigation. Next thing he knew, the UN Office of Internal Oversight sent him to the Eastern Congo.
An ancient air conditioner rattled in its slot above the door, blowing humid air into the room. It wasn't any cooler than the air outside. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and took off his jacket. It had dark spots under the arms. The Bangladeshis didn't seem to mind the climate. Their uniforms looked crisp.
"There is the Antonov now, sir," the air traffic controller said with the lilt of South Asians. He pointed to a blip on the radar. The timing was just about right.
"How far is it?"
"About ten miles, sir."
"How long until it lands?"
"Fifteen minutes, give or take. Maybe more. Depends on the approach Petrovic takes."
"Is he usually late?"
"Sometimes Petrovic is on time, sometimes he isn't. This is Africa."
A loud voice crackled over the radio.
"Central Lakes Air Niner Quebec Charlie Echo Juliet requests permission to land."
The voice had a strong slavic accent.
"Niner Quebec, this is Bunia air control, Bangladeshi Air Force controller Ghosh. Permission granted for runway ten. Visual flight rules in effect. Westerly winds, about 3 knots."
"Ghosh, you dumb Paki. When're you gonna get a decent radar to guide me in."
"When you fly a decent aircraft, you lazy Chetnik."
Ghosh smiled and scribbled something into a log book.
"Can I intercept the plane right after it lands?" Vermeulen asked.
"No, sir. No vehicles allowed on the tarmac during taxiing."
"Where will he stop?"
"At the cargo area over there, Sir." Ghosh pointed in the general direction.
Vermeulen grabbed his jacket.
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
Good thing he remembered their insignia.
A Bangladeshi policewoman is killed in a displaced persons camp in Darfur. Nothing more than a random act of violence in a dangerous part of the world?
Valentin Vermeulen, conducting a routine audit, quickly learns that the official story is wrong. For one, the armored personnel carriers that are to serve as backup to the foot patrols are old and worn out, while the UN is paying for new vehicles. But that turns out to be the least of his problems.
Before long, he is caught in a sandstorm, captured by rebel soldiers, and chased through the streets of Port Sudan.
Together with TV journalist Tessa Bishongo, Vermeulen peels away layer upon layer of the mystery until he faces the architect of the conspiracy in the dry savanna of Darfur.
Priya Choudhury closed her notebook and looked at the woman seated on the ground across from her. She knew what the woman needed—food, clean water, oral rehydration solution for her sick baby and a husband who'd treat her with affection rather than scorn and anger. But what she needed most was being back home, wherever that was, taking care of her family rather than surviving in a tiny tarp covered hovel at the edge of the Zam Zam camp in Darfur, Sudan.
Priya got up and brushed the dust off her crisp fatigues. She liked the random pattern of greens, browns, blues and tans. It didn't provide much camouflage in the orange dust of Darfur, but it made her feel important. A member of the all female police unit serving as part of the UN mission in Darfur, she knew the expectations she and her sisters faced. Be twice as tough as the men and still maintain empathic relationships with the women and children in the camp.
She dug through her pack and pulled out a bag of oral rehydration powder. She gave it to the woman and explained with the help of the local interpreter how to use it to treat her girl's diarrhea. The woman's haggard face broke into a smile. She clasped Priya's hand and spoke in rapid sentences.
"She thanks you," the interpreter said.
"That's all? What else did she say?"
"Thank you in twelve different ways. Arabic is a very flowery language."
Priya didn't believe that. The woman was too animated. She might be a prospect for a gender empowerment workshop. Get ten or so women together and train them to teach others about simple remedies like oral rehydration. It'd be easy and the results would be instantaneous and measurable. She'd propose that at the evening briefing.
Her colleague Ritu Roy came back from another shack. They patrolled in pairs, working to establish good relationships with the women in the camp. An armored personnel carrier with Nepalese backup waited near the entrance of the camp. They'd found its presence too intimidating and opted to have it hang back. Close enough to intervene should there be trouble but out of sight.
The running joke among Priya's unit was that the APCs were just for show. The one time they actually needed backup, the APC that was supposed to come to their aid broke down. Half the time they began their patrols late because the damn things didn't start. The Nepalese policemen just shrugged and said that it was all they got.
Ritu had been the most vocal about the poor equipment. They expect us to stick our necks out, she said, but they couldn't save us if push came to shove. The UN requires all units to bring proper equipment. Their Nissan SUVs were brand new. Ritu even wrote a complaint to head of UNAMID, as the operation in Darfur was commonly called.
"Anything happen on your side?" she said to Ritu.
"Same old. The woman had a black eye but wouldn't say anything. No wonder, her husband was right there. I managed to coax her outside on a pretense and there she told me the truth. He hit her for sneaking some of his food to her kids. These men make my blood boil."
Another aspect of their job was to settle domestic disputes bred by the impossibly packed conditions, the lack of money, jobs and hope. Get the women's side of the story, mediate and, if the men refused to change their behavior, take them away. All of them were aware of the irony of being female cops in Darfur pushing for gender equity that was so often lacking in Bangladesh, their own country.
"What did you do?"
"I went back inside and told the man about the importance of child nutrition, asking him if he wanted to have strong sons to provide for him in the future. All the while I played with my handcuffs. I think he got the message."
"Good one. I have to remember that."
The gang of children that routinely followed them seemed to have increased in size. Priya looked back. The kids had changed to older teens and a few men were trailing them. She nudged Ritu and motioned with her head behind them.
Ritu looked back. Her face showed her concern.
"Let's get back to the car, this doesn't look good."
They had experienced such mobs before. Out of nowhere, angry teenagers and adults joined the throng of kids. Within moments, the kids disappeared, and the atmosphere changed from festive to menacing. Ritu led the way down the alley to their right. They sped up, seeing their SUV five rows further.
"Should I radio our protectors?" Priya said.
Another group of men emerged from between the shacks in front of them. Seconds later they were surrounded by men of all ages. An older man in a dingy robe and a messy turban started hectoring them in an angry voice. Their interpreter had disappeared.
Priya fingered the buttons of her radio.
"We need help immediately. Over."
The radio crackled and a male voice responded.
"Where are you?"
"Fourth row, D section, hurry. These men don't look very happy."
The roar of an engine starting came from the direction of the entrance. It died almost immediately.
"Fucking APCs," Ritu muttered.
The hectoring man had talked himself into a frenzy and the others were agreeing vociferously. Priya felt hands pulling on her uniform. A youth with an ugly leer on his face grabbed her breast. She reached for her pistol. Someone pushed her from behind. She fell over the youth's outstretched foot. Her training kicked in immediately. She rolled into a crouch, held her pistol with both hands, sweeping it in a semi circle.
"Get back," she shouted.
"I got you covered," Ritu said, and Priya felt Ritu's body against her back.
The sight of two women with pistols in combat pose seemed to cool the crowd's passion. It backed away, giving the cops space to get up again. They heard the engine again. The APC must have finally started. Priya let out a deep breath and relaxed. She lowered her pistol.
The shot fell almost as an afterthought. Even the men in the crowd looked surprised before running away. Priya spun around, saw the running mass of people, then Ritu on the ground. Blood pooled in a dusty puddle that grew rapidly.
"Where did you get hit?"
Ritu's answer was nothing more than a gurgle. Priya turned her friend over and saw a gaping hole in her neck. She pulled the first aid kit from her pack and pressed a bandage against the wound. It turned red almost immediately. She kept pressing against the soaked bandage while pushing the call button on her radio.
"Police down! Police down! Need immediate medical evacuation. Repeat, I need immediate medical evacuation."
When the medics finally arrived, Ritu's blood had stopped flowing. There was none left.
Musa Khumalo is mixed race and lives in a shack in one of the many informal settlements dotting the Durban cityscape. Left behind as untold others in the new South Africa.
Reluctantly, he participates in a protest rally demanding better facilities at their location. Things don't go as planned. A shots are fired, a corrupt city councillor is killed and Musa is wanted for murder.
On the run from the police, he tries to clear his name and uncovers a case of massive bribery involving the councillor and a powerful white developer. But the mystery deepens when Musa realizes that a shadowy assassin is the true killer. Who hired him? Racing against time, Musa finds the necessary evidence and confronts the killer on Durban's famous beachfront.
Musa Khumalo smelled the ozone first. It wafted in the air as if a lightning had struck. Then he heard the shriek. He spun around and saw the skinny boy, wide-eyed, scared out of his wits. A piece of cable stuck out from the lamppost. Another lay on the ground.
"Eish," Musa shouted in Zulu. He'd forgotten about the boy. "Don't touch anything!"
The boy stood didn't move, his dark-skinned face ashen.
Musa dropped his tools, ran to the boy and snatched him by his tattered T-shirt away from the lamppost.
"Are you OK?"
The boy nodded and Musa let out a deep breath.
"Don't ever play with bare wires. Electricity can kill you."
"Y…Y…Yebo," the boy said and ran to the shack that looked like it could be leveled with a well aimed kick. He plopped down in the shade and kept watching. Curious little guy, Musa thought. He liked that.
He went back to wrapping the spliced cables with insulating tape. It would have to do. Not the safest way to get electricity, but certainly the cheapest.
"Try it now," he shouted.
The boy ran inside. Musa could see the glow of a lightbulb through the square of plastic sheeting that served as the sole window. Good. The boy could do his homework after dark—if he attended school at all.
It was unusually hot for September, a precursor of the sticky heat that would mark the Christmas season. Musa wiped his forehead and bent down to reattach the lid to the access hole at the bottom of the lamppost, leaving a space for the black cable snaking across the ground towards the shack. No reason to screw it on tight. He'd connect a neighboring shack sooner or later.
All the lampposts along this stretch of Lincoln Road had been tapped. It wasn't part of the official development plan, but then neither were the shacks.
The boy's mother emerged from the shack with a broad smile. Precious Silongo's face had a burnt-umber hue shining with sweat. It was a friendly face, open and without guile. She was a big woman, not tall, probably in her forties with strong fleshy arms. Her red T-shirt didn't quite match the traditional skirt that reached the ground.
She had contacted Musa via the informal network through which news circulated among the migrants, day laborers, janitors, hawkers and tsotsis—the small time crooks in the townships—who had settled at the intersection of Lincoln and Kings Road.
"Keep your boy away from that post and the cable," Musa said. "It's dangerous."
"His name is Andile. You can tell him yourself," she said, coming closer. Musa could make out the words "Land & Housing Now!" on her T-shirt.
"Hey, Andile," he shouted. The boy emerged from the shack. "Don't touch the cable and stay away from the lamppost."
Andile, his earlier shock worn off, gave him a thumbs-up.
His mother took her mobile phone from a pocket and pressed its buttons.
"What's your Wizzit code?"
Musa told her his mobile phone banking code and she pressed more buttons.
"There you go," she said. "It's all I have right now."
"No worries. You can pay the rest when you get more."
His phone beeped, announcing the receipt of the transfer.
"Where'd you come from?" he asked, feeling a sudden impulse to make small talk.
"From up north, by Mtubatuba. My husband divorced me and I had no place to go. My cousin lives in Durban and told me to come. But she got no work either."
Musa nodded. A depressingly common story.
"I sell three-Rand bags of fruit by the rail station," Precious continued. "Ain't much money. But I'm savin'. I'm gonna have a phone service. Someday. At least Andile can go to school. How about you?"
Musa didn't know the answer to that question. He could have listed the turning points that, taken together, led to his living in a shack in one of the countless informal settlements that dotted the greater Durban landscape. But they didn't really explain his journey from engineering student to shack dweller.
"Things happened," he said, opting for the easiest answer.
Precious left it there.
"I hear you fix radios and mobiles too."
"Yes, I do."
"You got a good skill there. You could open a shop somewhere, get a decent place to live."
"I guess so," Musa said, not committing to that particular plan. He'd stopped thinking about the future. It seemed a useless exercise.
"Well, I better go," he said and picked up his tool bag.
"Wait." Precious touched his arm to stop him. "We're meetin' tonight to organize another protest. D'you want to come? I'm sure we could use your help."
"Another protest? How many have you already held?"
"Too many. One of these days, Councillor Naidu will have to listen to us. So we're gonna march to his office to demand water and toilets."
"Not electricity?" Musa grinned.
"That too." Precious winked. "We won't tell 'em that we got some already. So, will you come?"
Musa shrugged. His last protest had been a march to the Vice-Chancellor's office to demand that financial aid be restored. That was two years ago, right on his twenty-fifth birthday, and it hadn't made a damn bit of difference. His scholarship was eliminated and his engineering studies came to an abrupt halt. He'd lost faith in marches.
"Please come, Musa," Precious insisted. "We got a decent group and we can use someone with a good head on his shoulders."
"Let me think about it."
He clasped Precious' hand, shouldered his tool bag and walked home.
The way to his shack led through a maze of narrow paths, past shoddy shacks squeezed tightly together, up an incline and across the dirt patch were a few boys kicked a makeshift ball made of plastic bags. During the rainy season, everything turned to mud.
The late afternoon sun cast a warm light that failed to make the shacks appear as anything other than the ramshackle edifices they were, temporary shelters made of corrugated tin, oddly shaped boards, mud, sticks, and pieces of stolen traffic signs. Some had been here for several years, others had just been put up by yet another family that'd come from up north, hoping for a better life.
Some women had started cooking fires outside their shacks. They stirred their smoke-blackened pots and watched mealie pap—the cornmeal and water staple—thicken. How ordinary it all looked. Cooking, eating, sleeping. Normality just crept back and asserted itself. None of them were supposed to be at Lincoln Road. But they'd come anyway and made a go of it.
One of his customers—he'd fixed the man's mobile phone—passed and greeted him with a friendly wave. Musa waved back. Another satisfied neighbor. It made living at Lincoln Road much easier.
When he first got to Lincoln Road, almost two years ago, he'd been treated with suspicion. No surprise, really. He stuck out. His skin was much lighter and his black hair much straighter. Even a casual observer could see that his parents had chosen to ignore whatever rules government and society had devised to prevent mixing.
But having an Indian mother and a Zulu father was no asset. The racial arithmetic of apartheid did not allow for people in-between and in the new Rainbow Nation those divisions, if anything, had hardened.
He jumped over a narrow ditch of black water that leached from a heap of garbage. A mangy dog tore at one of the plastic bags in the pile. The stench—made worse by the heat—made his empty stomach churn.
His shack was small, but it had two solid walls made of tightly fitted planks. The remaining mud-and-stick walls looked more precarious; they were held in place by the sheet of corrugated iron that kept the rain at bay. The single pane window once had a mate when it was surrounded by bricks and mortar. It sat uncomfortably in the mud wall with newspaper filling the gaps to keep the drafts out.
He unlatched the door, entered the dark room and pulled the string from the the lightbulb. The single room was sparsely furnished—a table made from old orange boxes, a plastic chair, the backrest broken off, and a bedroll in the corner. Two crates that once held milk bags supported a board with a small paraffin stove and a ten-liter plastic container that served as water storage.
The only luxury was the tiny refrigerator he'd liberated from his student housing. He took out the last bottle of Windhoek Lager, uncapped it and took a deep swallow. Ahh, that was better.
The stove maintained its obstinate record and sputtered to life only on the fourth try. He boiled water for the last of the pumpkin. That and some bread and cheese would have to do for his supper. He'd forgotten to stop at the shop for food.
Waiting for the water to boil, he thought about Precious and her meeting. It'd be easiest just to ignore it. Marches were a waste of time. No reason to get involved. Since coming to Lincoln Road, he'd kept to himself. It was safer that way.
He'd never been what one would call outgoing. His mother died of pneumonia when he was nine. His father, a policeman, had neither skill nor inclination for child rearing. Shuttled between neighbors, being alone became a habit. It was easier, but also lonely.
The time at the university had been the exception. He fit in, made friends and came out of his shell. Losing the scholarship tossed him back into his solitary existence.
Since then he simply didn't think about those days. It only left him despondent. But occasionally, an event, a conversation, a simple smile pierced that shield and the desire to belong surfaced again.
Precious' invitation brought up that feeling. It hadn't been an offhand remark. She meant it when she asked him to come, he saw it in her eyes. The sound of water boiling over pulled him back to the moment. He tossed the pumpkin pieces into the pot and took another swallow of beer. I should just go and check it out, he thought. I can always leave again.
Naked Came the Rogue.
Jackson County Libraries Serial Mystery, Spring 2011.
Assistant Librian Annie Brandon is about ready to close up the library when a naked woman shows up. Wearing only a G-string, Lindy wants to check out a book on raw cooking. A half hour later, Annie finds her dead outside the library.
That's the beginning of a mystery that will take Annie through most of Jackson County. A serial mystery, Naked Came the Rogue was written by Tim Wohlforth, Morgan Hunt, Mary Robsman, Lyda Woods, Caren Caldwell, Carol Beers, Ed Batistella, Maryann Mason. I wrote chapter nine.
"With nights like this, who needs days," Annie said to no one in particular when she crawled out of bed on Sunday morning. The night had been awful, her sleep fitful. Every time she woke up, she ran through the implications of the letter until she was so exhausted she fell asleep again.
When morning finally came, she'd made no progress, except for one conclusion. The two murders were connected. There was no doubt in her mind.
But that just raised more questions. Who'd kill mother and daughter? Why didn't Stills mention his sister at all, even after she was murdered? Not to mention, why didn't he tell her that the dead Wichita Wendy was his mother? And what about Crosby? He seemed like a big teddy bear, but could she trust her instincts? Maybe he had more severe mental issues than social anxiety disorder. Hey, the guy lived in a cabin out in the wilderness. Or was there someone else who had an axe to grind with the whole family? Like that father who disappeared a long time ago. Or that man with the fedora.
Outside, the air was already hot. Her skin felt sticky. She started the electric kettle and hurried into the shower to rinse off the sweat and nightmares.
Looking into the mirror afterwards, she saw her face was even paler than usual. She grabbed the washrag and rubbed her cheeks until they were red. There. That was better. She pulled on her robe.
In the kitchen, the kettle's thermostat had clicked off. She grabbed a chamomile teabag from the cupboard. Her hand stopped in mid-air. Chamomile tea wouldn't do at all, she thought. Not after a night like that. Lisbeth Salander wouldn't drink Chamomile tea.
She dressed, grabbed her bag and headed for the Key of C coffee house for a large coffee and a bagel.
She felt the warmth of the first sip of coffee course through her body and wondered why she'd given up coffee in the first place. Probably some Ashland thing. This town had a way of making strange things seem perfectly normal. Lisbeth would have lit a cigarette, but Annie drew the line there.
With her wits somewhat restored, the questions returned. Stills' role in all this bothered her. He'd never been one to open up. Not exactly rare for a man. Their relationship could be rocky, especially when Stills was in a bad mood. But the tiffs never lasted long, and he could be so lovable and gentle afterwards. Still, he'd never behaved as he did during the past week. His silence about Wendy and Lindy was just plain bizarre.
Her cell phone beeped before she could finish the thought. A calendar reminder flashed on the screen.
"Oh, Faulkner!" she swore. In all the turmoil, she'd forgotten that she had signed up to help out with the shelving backlog at the White City and Eagle Point libraries.
Mysterical-E, Spring 2011.
Beach vacations aren't always what they're cracked up to be. Even if the location is idyllic, like the deserted sandy beaches on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast, just a stone's throw from the Mozambican border, appearences can be deceiving. Magnus Hardy is about to find out how true that is.
Read the whole story at Mysterical-E.