FEB 16, 2023
Mapacha and Gwafa hastily walked away from the car rental shop, milled in with the pedestrians, crossed the palm-lined Avenue Mohammed V and ultimately entered the hotel. At the reception, they found Banou fastidiously clung to the diplomatic bag and her train case while Mzee Tembo finalised with the receptionist.
"The car is gone?" he asked as he adjusted his browlines.
"Yes, boss. We can leave now."
"I will find a taxi," Gwafa offered.
"No need," said the receptionist, who had eavesdropped on their conversation. He motioned to the porter. "Taksi!"
Less than a minute later the porter returned and motioned to them to come out and get into the taxi.
"Thank you and safe travels," the receptionist said.
"Thank you," Mzee Tembo replied with a slight nod.
As the porter pushed the luggage-laden trolley, Mapacha followed him while his keen eyes read every face and body motion that encircled them. Like the others, he felt apprehensive. It was, after all, a lot of money, alongside the diamonds. Would Ossi betray them? Had he gone and blubbed about the deal and cast suspicion on them? Nobody was keen to find out. They just wanted to go.
An old man with a striped grey djellaba and fez beckoned them to his beige Mercedes Benz. He groaned wearily as he lifted the bags onto the carrier and carefully tied them down. Mapacha fished out five dirhams that he gave to the porter who thanked them as he pushed the trolley back to the hotel.
"We are going to the airport, right?" the taxi driver asked in his heavily accented voice that was shrouded with hesitation.
"Yes," Mzee Tembo said as he entered and sat next to him.
"I will give you a good price. No problem."
His smile expressed otherwise and they were all doubtful, but this was not the time to argue. He switched on the taxi as Gwafa and Mapacha squeezed Banou in the middle at the back, and the taxi crawled towards the bridge. The gang's eyes constantly peered out back to see if they had picked up a tail, but as before, they were alone.
"Hey, you heard about the football match from yesterday?" the driver pressed Mzee Tembo.
The craze of football was strong in the driver and he was eager to talk about the match with someone.
Mzee Tembo was uninterested, but the driver ignored the blatant rejection.
The driver cackled for a moment, then said, "It seems Guinea is stuck in its draw streak. They could not beat The Black Stars."
"Is that so?" Mzee Tembo asked nonchalantly.
Mzee Tembo blundered with that question. The driver took a tremendous effort to describe the match in such great detail, he sounded as if he had been at the stadium. Thiam? Owusu? You would think he had met them after the match for a tête-à-tête. By the time they had reached the airport, Mzee Tembo was twice as dispirited about football as he had been before he entered the taxi. He happily paid the tourist rate and was glad to be free of the football fanatic. An enthusiastic young-looking porter quickly rushed towards them, grabbed the bags and loaded them onto his trolley. He started to head in before Gwafa stopped him.
"So how do we do this?" Mzee Tembo asked Gwafa.
"Let me find out. You guys wait for me here."
He entered the terminal and proceeded to the Information Desk where a handsomely dressed young man in a sharp grey suit greeted him with an effortless smile.
"Good morning. How may I help you?"
"Morning. Yes. We are going to Tangier, and I need to get clearance for transit for my plane. How do I do that?"
"That office right there," he said as he pointed to a small office with a white door labelled 'ADMINISTRATION CIVILE'.
Gwafa walked over and knocked on the door.
"Entrer!" came the loud voice from within.
The stuffy smoky office was staffed by a uniformed officer that looked dour and sat behind a brown wooden desk that was stacked with all manner of files and documents, a black rotary telephone that had the headset unhooked, a brown glass ashtray that overflowed with cigarette butts and a half-smoked cigarette that streamed a light blue trail of smoke cradled on one of the notches, and a series of rubber stamps. He seemed unbothered by Gwafa's presence and barely raised his brow to listen to him.
"Salaam brother," Gwafa responded. "We are going to Tangier with our own plane, and we need to get the transit form for that."
"When are you departing?"
"Now. We are ready to go."
The officer sighed and triggered a phlegmy cough as he stood up and slid the top green cabinet door open. He pulled out a form with a pink duplicate at the bottom and carbon paper in between.
"Fill this out."
Gwafa sat on the visitor chair, scanned the form, took out his operator license as well as the manifest and filled it out. When he was done, he gave it back, and the officer reviewed it.
"You know I was in the sand a few years ago," he declared with a hint of bitterness.
Gwafa felt tense. He did not want to engage in a discussion about the perpetual strain that existed between their countries. The officer stamped the form and the duplicate that he tore off and handed it to Gwafa.
"Take this and go pay for it with your landing fees and you will be cleared."
Gwafa nervously left the office, sighed in relief as he shut the door behind himself, and went to the payment counter where he submitted the form and the manifest and then paid the fees. The form was stamped again and returned to him with a payment receipt.
He returned to the others. Their faces were full of anxiety. It felt as if everyone around them was drawn to their presence.
"Done. Let's go."
The patient porter pushed the squeaky trolley into the terminal and across to the airside. Mapacha supervised the luggage as it was loaded while Gwafa sought fuel.
Banou and Mzee Tembo shuffled in and sat down and finally felt relieved that they had gotten this far. Outside, a pale red Total Volvo Raske hydrant cart drove over to the plane. The operator, who wore a pale red pair of overalls with a large Total logo at the back braced a ladder next to the plane and climbed up with the nozzle in his hand. He coupled it to the plane's fuel slot, climbed down and switched on the pump.
It took about a half-hour, and the plane was ready to go. Gwafa hurriedly took the chit to the fuel office to pay for it. As he walked back towards his plane, a Royal Air Maroc Douglas DC-3 was in the middle of its take-off roll on the runway.
He had the ground crew haul the power unit as he quickly went through his plane, then jumped in and sat next to Mapacha. It was a quick review of the necessary procedures and the Wasps growled to life in their right-left sequence. The ground crew pulled away the chocks, and Gwafa taxied and queued behind an Air France Sud Caravelle and a Royal Air Maroc Boeing 720B. Twenty minutes later, Gwafa throttled the Skytrain up into the clouds. They all sighed in relief as Rabat grew smaller behind them and the wide expanse of greenery opened up.
Ahead in the Royal Air Maroc Douglas also headed to Tangier, the thick pair of bloodshot eyes that belonged to the European man peered out of the tiny square porthole. His eyes blankly stared out at the tiny green patches of vegetation. His mind, however, ferociously cranked as he plotted the numerous tasks ahead.
Gwafa waited till the plane got into its operational cruise altitude before he engaged the Sperry and then he crossed into the cabin with Mapacha behind him. This was the only chance they would get to plan in privacy.
"OK boss, what is the plan?" Mapacha asked.
"So, this is a whole new territory. If we are not careful, we might end up in prison or dead. Therefore, we need to keep up our wits. I shall initiate contact with this Lounis character and then plan for the meeting. Gwafa and I will go in for the first meeting and you and Banou provide us with overwatch. When the meeting is done, you tail them to wherever they go and we keep an eye on them for a day or two. If they seem OK, we arrange for a second meeting and move on. OK?"
"What if the meeting goes wrong?" Banou asked.
"We regroup as quickly as possible and head out to the plane and just leave. Gwafa, when we land, top up the fuel to make sure we can leave quickly, at least first to Algeria or back to the island."
"We have to be sharp so as soon as we land, make sure your guns are loaded and you have enough ammunition in case the setup goes wrong. I don't expect violence, but these are gangsters, the real deal."
"Mapacha, keep an eye on the plane for a minute," Gwafa instructed.
As Mapacha returned to the cockpit, Banou got nervous and wanted to point out that in fact, Gwafa was the pilot, but she kept quiet and just watched. Gwafa took out a toolkit from behind the pilot's seat and picked a spot on the floor of the plane and unscrewed the panel with one of the spanners. Underneath was a hidden secret compartment.
"Pass the bag."
Banou handed it to him, and he took out the money and stacked it inside the chamber. He gave her back the empty bag, laid the panel back over the compartment and screwed it back on. Mzee Tembo smiled. He knew about the compartment, but its genius of it always amazed him. This is what he liked. Professionalism.
"Good, Gwafa. Good stuff."
Gwafa returned to the cockpit, put the tools back where he had gotten them from and took over the controls of the plane.
The flight was short and uneventful. They all peered out of the portholes and admired the view over Houara. Gwafa banked the plane left over the beach at Sidi Kacem and he headed out towards the water. He then turned the plane left twice as per the instructions from the control tower and prepared to land. The tower of Tangier Ibn Battouta Airport shimmered from a distance as the wide runway appeared over the horizon. Mapacha peered out into the distance and saw the green airport building appear. It was a busy morning at the airport. Caravelles and Boeings that had arrived from their cross-ocean voyages to deliver tourists littered the airspace. They circled for almost 15 minutes, and then Gwafa skillfully landed the plane and taxied to the apron. Two ground crew quickly placed chocks on the plane's wheels as Gwafa killed the engines.
He swung open the service door and rushed out with Mapacha in tow. While Mapacha unloaded the luggage, Gwafa bolted to the Shell airside office in search of aviation fuel. He returned in a yellow Leyland 'Hippo'. The operator quickly topped up the tanks in under twenty minutes. Mapacha meanwhile had walked across the terminal to find a porter but returned alone with the trolley. After he had loaded it, an irate porter dressed in a brown utility suit and a brown peaked cap ran towards them.
"Hey, what is this?" he yelled angrily at Mapacha.
"There was no one there, and I had luggage to move."
"So you steal my trolley?"
"No. I borrowed it. You can push it back."
He eyed them sourly, blurted out some inanities in Darija, then grabbed the push bar and led it back into the terminal. Gwafa secured the plane and then they all followed the porter. At the gate, Gwafa produced the manifest and transit document and both were stamped and they were allowed to pass through. Outside the terminal, the porter waved at a taxi and a light blue Mercedes 240D quickly rushed over.
"Hello, my friends. Taxi? Where would you like to go?"
"Salaam. Hotel Rembrandt?"
Gwafa quickly haggled and the driver sprang out and helped the porter load the bags onto the carrier. Mapacha delved into his pocket and found a few bills that he handed over to the porter, who gave him a quick bow with a hint of mockery. He then stalked away, as he angrily mumbled under his breath. They all jumped into the taxi and began the three-quarter-hour ride into the city. The Becker Europa Radio, set on SNRT broadcast Yahya El Hadi's Ahna Staifia. Mzee Tembo, in the passenger seat and in good spirits, was engrossed in a broken Portuguese-English-French conversation with the driver while the rest watched Tangier appear.