FEB 21, 2023
"Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!"
The distant melodious cry jolted Mapacha up from his dreamless sleep. It baffled him, as did the room and it took a moment for him to recollect where he was. He rose from the bed and peeped through the aperture between the curtains. Outside, the purple wave was already on the horizon and all signs hinted at a glorious day. He parted the curtains and let morning in and then staggered to the privy, where he relieved himself. A moment later, he turned on the shower. The prickly needles of hot water riddled his skin and shook the sleep off him and he finally felt functional. After he towelled down, he sat on the bed unclothed for almost half an hour and attempted to concentrate on the tasks ahead. As determined as he was, his subconscious betrayed him and his thought processes finally caught up from where they had trailed off before he had slept. Abril. As he delved into it, there was a rapid knock on the door. He draped the rich brown cotton robe over his shoulders and then unlocked it.
Banou stood in the hallway already dressed in a casual pair of blue denim flairs with a white t-shirt. Her eager facial expression implied that she was ready to go.
"You aren't dressed yet? The old man says it's time to go."
"OK. I will be down in ten minutes."
He shut the door, put on a pair of brown corduroy flairs and a green t-shirt with his Bata bullets and reflected on this minor respite. The day would be busy, and this would allow him to shut Abril out. He checked his afro, walked out, locked his room and found Banou and Gwafa halfway through their cigarettes.
"Ola!" he greeted them.
"Let's get breakfast and then get moving," Mzee Tembo said.
"Wait, why are we going out for breakfast? Don't they have a restaurant in this hotel?" Banou asked.
They had not considered that there might have been a restaurant, given their propensity for action. Banou pushed past them and walked to the receptionist's desk.
"Morning. Can we get breakfast here?"
"Morning. Yes. Down the hall, to the right," she said as she pointed to the dual wooden banquet doors.
"Follow me," Banou ordered them.
They blindly followed her into the half-full restaurant, picked up trays and a plate for the buffet and served themselves the various bits of fruit, scones, bread, eggs, and beef sausages, with cups of tea, and for Gwafa, coffee. They knew that the day would be packed, so the meal had to be quick. Half an hour later, they stood outside the hotel. The street was already congested as the vibrant city roared to life. The first people to reach them were the street urchins that had been hired to identify tourists and draw them to the peddlers and money changers. It was a continuous chorus of 'No! No! No!' that fell on deaf ears. They trotted towards Place de France and Gwafa broke off two side streets before and turned left towards the hostel. He had the Moroccans to deal with. Banou, Mapacha and Mzee Tembo proceeded to the shop but found it locked so they settled into a small busy cafe across the road where they had a decent view of the shop. An hour later as they downed their tea, a beige Mercedes taxi arrived. A petite veiled woman followed by the thickly bearded men stepped out and walked to the door. The taxi shoved off as they entered inside.
"Esse é ele,"1 Mapacha whispered to the others.
Mzee Tembo took a moment to assess the man as he opened the shop, brought out his chair, sat down and lit his cigarette. Almost ten minutes later, the lady served him tea and retreated back into the shop. He seemed popular in the area and as other businesses opened up, their proprietors eagerly waved at him.
"Keep an eye on him, see who he talks to and such," Mzee Tembo said.
Pleased with the arrangement, he strolled back to the hotel to wait for the main show to start.
Gwafa's morning proved to be lacklustre. Lounis and Diae left the hostel and proceeded to a cafe where they had pancakes and mint tea. As soon as they finished, they walked down towards the beach, stopped to buy cigarettes and then pushed on to the spot they had haunted the previous day. Gwafa managed to sneak in a cup of coffee at Cafe Hafa before he crept to the hide that Mapacha had picked to watch the two.
Mzee Tembo's saunter proved to be an adventure in itself as he sporadically stopped to check out the shop displays. In his mind, the turbulence of indecision churned as he mentally prepared for the orchestration ahead. As he admired an electronics shop, he caught a familiar face and for a moment, he thought his eyes had hoodwinked him so he ignored what he thought he had seen and continued with his exploration. When he got to a haberdashery, the face appeared again over his shoulder. His skin crawled as he started to realise he had picked up a tail. At the next shop, a tobacconist, he walked in and busied himself with faux admiration of the various pipes, humidors and bags of tobacco, as he peered through the gaps of the painted window. The heavy must of tobacco clung to the wooden frames of the counters and shelves. The soft twang of 'El Houze' by Mohamed Chababi and Hassan Abdi from the radio accentuated the conspiratorial air that wafted overhead in the dimly lit room and inadvertently electrified the ambience. The proprietor, an old Moroccan man with a dark blue djellaba watched him for a moment. Mzee Tembo approached the counter.
"Hello. Could I have some cigarettes please?"
The proprietor cracked a minuscule smile on his rubbery lips and then realised he would need to draw more information.
Mzee Tembo did not hear him as he finally caught proper sight of the face with a quick glimpse over his left shoulder.
"Sir? Which cigarettes?"
He turned with a distressed look on his face.
"Which cigarettes would you like?"
He had no idea. What did those two smoke?
The proprietor was amused. Mzee Tembo drilled his memory as he tried to recall the brands.
"Two packs of Gauloises and two packs of Gitanes."
His pale claw-like fingers reached under the counter and drew two packs of each brand and placed them carefully into a brown khaki bag
"Eight dirhams please."
Mzee Tembo settled with a ten dirhams note, picked up the bag, collected the change, smiled and walked out. He was now absolutely certain. The European from Rabat had him in his sights. It could not be a coincidence. Mzee Tembo continued with his slow walk down the street, spotted a bicycle shop that he entered and perused for a moment. His mind shifted to a higher gear as he struggled to come up with a quick evasion plan. Aside from the familiar face, he realised that it was likely the European might have been a South African, given his ridiculous Boer outfit that stood out in an ocean of kaftans and djellabas. If that was the case, it would be likely the Côte d'Ivoire heist had blown and caught up with them. But how? He needed a new plan. First, he needed to shake off the shadow.
Emboldened, he left the shop and crisscrossed the various streets till he found himself in the depth of the Petit Socco where he ducked into the tributaries of alleyways till he found a dead-end with closed doors. He walked through the horseshoe arch and hid in the abysm of a shadowy doorway. Around him, all he could hear were the voices of Moroccans as they went about their day, but his focus was set to pick out his pursuer's face. He unhurriedly pulled out his revolver from where he had lodged it on his hip, unlatched the cylinder release and rotated it as he checked the chambers to make sure they were fully loaded, snapped it back in place, and then cocked it. He was ready. The South African got to the entrance of the dead-end and edged in deliberately, as he gasped wheezily.
"Fok! Fok! Fok!"
Definitely South African. From the dark doorway, barely a foot away, Mzee Tembo's eyeball could see the confusion as the man furiously skimmed around for a moment, threw his hands up into the air in a rage, turned and backed out. Mzee Tembo took out his pale brown handkerchief and mopped the beads of sweat off his forehead. He realised that the residents above on their balconies, partially obscured by the frayed carpets that dangled and flittered on their bannisters had witnessed the whole incident. After nearly a minute, he cautiously walked back through the arch, peered around and wedged the gun back into his hip underneath his shirt. The residents, unconcerned, slowly returned to their flats. Mzee Tembo melted in with the crowd and scurried through the alleyways and eventually found a path that led him towards Cafe Hafa, and past that to where Gwafa was positioned.
Gwafa had blended in well with the locals and had sat on the brown sand and leaned back against a strewn plank of driftwood with a cigarette loosely dangled on his lips. He seemed unbothered but had set a prudent eye on Lounis and Diae. Mzee Tembo crept up to him stealthily with his eyes on the duo on the beach with a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure he had lost the South African. He caught Gwafa by surprise.
"Boss, what's going on? You shouldn't be here. What's wrong?"
He could see the agitation on Mzee Tembo's face.
"Something is wrong. At least I think something is wrong. We have a new player in the game."
Gwafa shot back a surprised look.
"When I left Banou and Mapacha at the shop, someone was tailing me. A South African. Remember the European guy from Rabat?"
Gwafa nodded in recollection.
"Him. I lost him in some market back there, but if he spotted me again, then we are blown and need to call this thing off."
"Merde!" Gwafa cursed. "How did you know he was South African?"
"Well, these South Africans have a 'kit' that they wear. A farmer's uniform. Some brown khaki outfit with shorts and red socks. I mean. . . if you are working a tail here, you want to blend in, but the guy. . . it's ridiculous. He has poor tradecraft. A total amateur."
The Moroccan duo suddenly rose and started to walk away from their spot.
"Well, what do we do about them?" Gwafa asked.
"Let's tail them for a few minutes and see what they do, then I will go find the others and warn them. You have your heater?"
"Yes. Stay low boss."
The Moroccans rushed away from the beach. Mzee Tembo and Gwafa stuck to them. They also now had to watch out for the new player.
Inside the shop, Mapacha was relieved that it was busy. It made the cover better and given that they had juice and tea regularly, and appeared as a couple, they had not garnered much attention from other patrons or the staff. The noon sun peaked and Mapacha spotted the Moroccan duo as they headed to the shop. That seemed odd. Gwafa must have been somewhere nearby and would check in with them. Before he had settled on the thought, Mzee Tembo and Gwafa entered the cafe and calmly walked towards them.
Banou, surprised, had to ask, "Hey old man, you are out doing footwork?"
An astute waiter approached them and requested their orders.
"Two juices please."
Less than a minute later, fogged glasses filled with cold mango nectar were served.
Mzee Tembo had eventually caught his breath.
"We have a new player. Remember that European guy from Rabat in the Renault? Well, he is actually a South African and he was tailing me earlier. All morning from what I guess. I lost him in a market, but it's a good assumption that he knows all of us."
"Well, if he is alone, we stay on course and deal with him if he becomes a liability, right?"
To Banou, this sounded like an obvious question but to Gwafa and Mzee Tembo he merely stated the obvious and there would be no contest. Mzee Tembo accepted that they would have to see the deal through.
"We need to find him first," Gwafa suggested.
"How did you know he was South African?" Banou asked.
Mzee Tembo described him and his outfit and how ridiculous it looked. Banou leaned back, listened and was amused. She then turned to scan the street and unexpectedly, she saw him.
"You mean that guy?"
They all turned and saw the South African in a frenzied rage as he darted back and forth between all the cafe fronts.
They casually rose, gathered their refreshments and delved deeper into the cafe, away from the window. The South African, now blinded by wrath, burst into the cafe, quickly browsed the faces and then immediately charged out. The other patrons surprised watched all of this amusedly, certain that there was a scam in the works, but when the South African left, they promptly returned to their own business.
"I'll take him. You guys watch the duo. Boss, head back to the hotel get the samples and then make the call. We need to confirm the time of the meeting," Mapacha ordered.
"OK. You have your tools?"
Mapacha stood up and rushed to the counter where forked out a ten dirhams note to cover the bill. He grabbed the change and cautiously slid out of the shop. The South African had made little headway in his arbitrary search.
Inside the cafe, Mzee Tembo quickly sapped the nectar and prepared to move.
"Banou, keys!" Mzee Tembo requested.
Her eyes squinted with suspicion.
"What do you need them for?"
"You heard Mapacha unless you have samples on you. We need to stay ahead, and we can't go back to the hotel until after the meeting, so, now would be better given that Mapacha has the South African in his sights."
She loathed the idea, given her perchance for privacy, but she knew he was right, so hesitatingly, she forked over the keys.
"OK. But don't go through my stuff."
Mzee Tembo grabbed the keys and handed the bag with the cigarettes to Banou.
"Here, I got you two presents."
Like Mapacha, he slipped out of the cafe and swiftly weaved between the pedestrians.
Banou opened the bag and found four packs of cigarettes. She poured them out, picked the Gitanes and handed the Gauloises to Gwafa, then she considered the implication.
"The old man bought us cigarettes? He hates cigarettes. What does it mean?"
"He was ducking the South African, so he likely used them as a cover."
She felt uneasy.
"Someone is going to get seriously hurt Gwafa. This thing is becoming serious."
Gwafa flashed mild irritation on his face from her comment.
"Banou, this is the game. When you guys beat up the English guy and when we went to Abidjan, this is what we signed up for."
"I know, but now, some wild South African is after us. This is crazy. I mean did you see how big and how angry he was?"
"Don't think too much into it. We have Mapacha, and you have seen what he does, so, we will come out OK. Besides, if it wasn't for them, you would still be in your old life."
"Are you saying I owe them? Or you?"
"No. That is the point. Nobody will ever claim a debt from you, but you are a part of this, so you have to be a true operator and carry your weight."
She swallowed hard in acquiescence. A new question formed in her mind.
"When we were in Rabat, how did you guys know that the European, I mean the South African was dodgy?"
"It's just another sense you get, learning how to read people."
"Is that what the old man meant when you guys went to meet Ossi? That you know how to read people?"
"Banou, some things come by intuition, some things you learn. I mean, in your last career, you knew how to read your clients, right?"
A touch of embarrassment slashed through her face as she realised that Gwafa knew her history.
"Yeah. But let's not go down that road. That is my past, and I would rather not delve there."
"Is that why you don't drink anymore?"
She sighed laboriously.
"Yeah. That. Alcohol and desperation led me to make bad decisions."
"Well you are a gangster now so are you blaming the alcohol for this too? Or are you blaming yourself for the courage alcohol gave you to face yourself for the decisions you made? Cause I haven't seen you touch a drop but you have handled stolen merchandise, smuggled it across borders, pointed a gun at people, you are now armed, and have gotten involved in a violent robbery, so which is it?"
She was quiet. That quick history struck home deep. In such a brief span, she had racked up quite the criminal mileage.
"So you are saying I'm destined for bad things, but alcohol was just an excuse to do the bad things?"
"I'm saying, don't blame alcohol for the things you did. That's just a bad excuse. You like this life, the easy money that has made you a homeowner, and you want to start a business, but this life, in this gang of ours, you like it. And despite being scared, you are a natural."
Banou reflexively brushed her pocket, patted the outline of the revolver and instantly felt more secure. The situation had become complicated and she had no idea if she could pull the trigger on someone if it came to it.
"Me? A natural? I'm here cause there are like a million dollars at stake. Who wouldn't?"
"So you are telling me that you aren't enjoying this?"
"Well yeah, a bit, I mean, it's exciting and the travel, the food, the shopping, staying in hotels, the money, you guys, but the gun stuff, the violence, it's not for me."
"It's not for me either, but that omelette won't be made with unbroken eggs. Somethings have got to give."
"So why are you doing this, Captain?"
He sighed and lowered his eyes.
She continued, "You are a whole captain, not just a pilot. You could be flying the big planes to Europe and everywhere else."
He spun and eyed the shop, and watched Lounis and Diae enjoy their tea before he faced her once again.
"I like my life, the adventure. This is what I would rather be doing and yes, I am a captain but I don't talk about it just as Mzee Tembo does not talk about his former rank in the military or Mapacha about his past. That is all history. This is what we are now."
Outside, Lounis had his small notepad in his hand as he read and explained a point to their host, while Diae casually nodded his head. The man seemed to agree to their discussion, and they shook hands and left the shop.
"I've got them. Mind the shop Banou."
Footwork by herself? Not her cup of tea, but Gwafa had been right. She had to rise to the occasion, regardless of the fact that her gut was filled with cautionary messages. The whole plan had mutated far too fast for her own comfort. The cigarettes would be her only companion for now. And her gun.
Mapacha tracked the South African to the El Minzah. He debated on how he could draw him to an isolated spot and neutralise him. For a moment, he considered a direct approach in the hotel, but quickly recognised he would stand out, and there would be far too many witnesses. He would have to wait among the tourists at the outfitter.
Kobus' nostrils flared in defeat as he blew past the receptionist straight to the bureau. There was a different attendant, and he quickly got to the point.
"Bonsoir," the phone attendant greeted.
"Ja! I need to make an international call."
"OK. Where to?"
"This will take some time," the attendant explained.
"Just call, here is the number."
He knew the routine. The attendant rang the operator and read the number. For almost thirty minutes there was no response then finally, the bell dinged and the attendant answered and was told that the other party was on the line. Before he could explain, Kobus snatched the receiver and snarled into it.
Over the whistles, and the static, he heard a faint voice.
"Who is this?"
"Hi Kobus, good to hear from you. You have another shipment ready?"
"No, listen. I found the guys?"
Kobus's tether finally snapped.
"What guys do you think?"
There was silence on the other end for a moment, and then the voice asked, "What do you want me to do about it?"
"They gave me the dip. I need help. Do you have guys on standby?"
"Kobus, I barely survived this scandal and the president is having me watched. Why would I get involved in this?"
"Cause they have the things here. They are trying to sell them, I think."
"Merde Kobus, let it go. We shall open a new route soon, so move on."
"Voetsek man!"2 he growled. "Send me two guys to help me, we get these things back."
The voice on the other side quietened, then sighed and then wearily asked, "Where are you staying?"
"The Continental. Tangier. When they get in, tell them to leave a message where I can contact them. And you need to hurry. They spotted me, so I know they will accelerate their timetable."
"You ask for the impossible. The fastest they can get there is tomorrow evening."
"Well, get them moving," he said, as he dropped the receiver.
The phone rang almost instantly and the operator got on, and then hang up.
"Sixty-three dirhams please."
He pulled out his wallet and counted the notes. Sixty-five. He laid it on the table and walked out.
Kobus had begun to loathe Morocco. The oppressive heat, the endless foul stench, the damn persistent hustler kids, the spicy food that made his stomach run, it had all started to break him down. Since the incident with the taxi driver who had lost the gang at the roundabout, he now stereotyped every Moroccan as being incompetent. How he wished he was back in Kimberly. As he stormed back to watch the Hotel Rembrandt, he did not see Mapacha come out of the store and start to trail him.
1. That's him.
2. Fuck off.