FEB 12, 2023
The courtyard restaurant of the hotel swarmed with patrons that enjoyed their dinner in the pleasant weather outside. The gang huddled round a wooden table and consulted the menus as a waiter with a forced smile, patiently hovered around the table waiting for them to place their orders. On the menu, the meals enticed with their exotic recipes. Banou led with couscous, a pick based on the long tales Nsia had told her about it, and the name 'couscous' sounded curious and mystical to her. Gwafa, with a softened look, closer to his homeland picked a Berber tagine. Being in Morocco gave him some comfort that he could actually enjoy a proper old-fashioned meal cooked the right way. Mzee Tembo whose palate had been improved by Nsia's meals wanted a tanjoa with khobz. Like Banou, he was more drawn to the meal by the name and the recipe stated looked adventurous. Mapacha, simple as ever chose kefta. After a long day, a simple filling meal that did not complicate his life was good enough. The waiter scribbled their orders on a pad and hastily retreat back into the building to present it to the chef. He returned with glasses of juice and told them that their meals would be served in approximately twenty minutes.
While they waited, they devolved into small talk about the hotel, its opportunistic location, their individual rooms and the city that was far grander than it appeared on a map. Before their juices were done, two waiters with trays held shoulder high quickly rushed to their tables and carefully laid the meals in front of them. Banou could barely contain her excitement as the aroma of the spices inundated her. Even before the waiters had disappeared, they eagerly delved into the meals while they coped with Banou's enthusiastic narration of the spices she uncovered between mouthfuls. They watched her in amused silence and when she finished, her final verdict of the meal was that it was one of perfection. The others finished and the waiters cleared the table and offered them various dessert options. It was juice for the trio, while Gwafa selected a Heineken to down with a cigarette. Banou followed suit when the waiter left and then brought out her serious face.
"So, old man, what is the plan?"
Mzee Tembo winced at the designation but resigned himself to her bequeathment.
"Well, tomorrow, Gwafa and I will head out to meet with my contact here. Then when we know what is what, we will then act from there. Banou, you and Mapacha break down the diamonds into packs of ten each. It will make it easier to deal with them that way."
That was a simple enough task to fulfil. Banou was happy she would not have to dress up and attend the reconnaissance. She imagined that if they finished fast enough, she could take a few hours to walk around and explore. Mapacha was also happy to remain in the hotel. New people were not his cup of tea and he enjoyed the background role, for now.
"Boss, how will we know that the guy is legit?"
"Lourenço vouches for him, and I have dealt with Lourenço for years, so if he says he is good, then I have to trust his judgement somewhat. When we meet him, you read him, his body language, all that. Play the subordinate, don't say anything, let me do the talking, but read him and the environment. Gwafa, you have a nose for people."
It was true. Gwafa was like a bloodhound and he could sus suspicious demeanours from the word go, though his intuition had failed to read Mapacha accurately in Abidjan.
While Banou and Gwafa enjoyed their cigarettes, close to them was the breathless talk about the explosive match that had been between Congo-Kinshasa and Guinea at the Africa Cup of Nations that had disappointingly ended in a draw. That did not stop the comparisons from being drawn. Petit Sory's goal five minutes into the first half had set the tone for the match, and the second one by Soumah had almost rendered the game lost for Congo-Kinshasa, but the late two goals in quick succession by Kalonzo and Mungamuni had saved Congo-Kinshasa's hide. Now, with bated breath in rushed Darija and French, the fans all had an opinion to declare and judgement of Paul Koudou's position as a referee would be heavily scrutinised that night across the continent.
An hour later, they called it an evening and went up to their rooms.
Cars? Klaxons? Angry shouts? Was she back in St. Michel or was this a dream? Had everything else been a dream and she was about to wake up in her dingy little room on the second floor of the tenement? She roused herself, jostled by the fast-paced thoughts that tumbled in her mind. The noise did not cease, and the angry shouts were beyond comprehension. Disoriented, she struggled to immerse herself into the current situation and then heard the distant voice of the muezzin as it called for Adhan. Rabat! She sighed in relief, but unease tingled deep inside her. Granted, this was supposed to be an easier gig than Abidjan, but that little voice nagged her.
Her hand reached to the bedside cabinet for a cigarette. The first one of the day was the best one. She left the bed, went to relieve herself, then came back out and opened the curtains and the window, and allowed the fresh air to flow over her naked body. Who cared if anyone saw her? Her cigarette burnt slowly, and the beautiful dawn light finally gave way to true daybreak. Mapacha. She felt the need to talk to him. The cigarette was thus battered amongst the other butts, and she went to shower.
Half an hour later, she puffed her afro in the mirror fully dressed and went out to Mapacha's room. The instant she knocked, the door was cast open and Mapacha stood there, fully dressed and alert.
"Ola Mapacha. Can I come in?"
He gave her a quizzical look.
"Hi, Banou. Is everything OK?"
She pushed the door ajar and forced her way in before Mapacha could even invite her to enter.
"Listen, this whole thing, it does not feel right."
"Do you have doubts about the plan?"
She considered for a second. "It's not the plan. The old man is a stickler and so far everything has worked out, but this trip just feels off. You understand?"
He listened to her and though he usually disregarded people as they discussed their sentiments, his own was a different matter, and he wanted to agree with her, but, he was not about to talk about himself and how he truly felt.
"Listen Banou, if we stick to the plan, everything should work out OK. Don't worry too much about it. Remember how nervous you were in Abidjan?"
"Yeah. I remember."
"Well, this is the same situation. Except, this time, there should be less violence because we are not exactly taking things from anyone. If anything, we are just doing business, selling merchandise and collecting money. This is how it will work out."
She let out a slight chortle. Mapacha was a savant of simplification. The mental acrobatics that others burdened themselves with did not seem to bother him. Though he was casual about it, had he told her that he felt slightly apprehensive, it may have eased her own thoughts. Or made them worse. For a moment, Banou's doubts made him hesitant and this he did not need. He reached into the deep cavern of his mind to draw out a new dilemma to fester on.
"Why does Abril love me?" his inner voice questioned him.
"No!" he hissed. Wrong box.
"What?" Banou asked him as she wondered what he disagreed with.
He shut the whole thing down.
"Umm, nothing. Let's get the guys and go get breakfast," Mapacha offered sheepishly.
Banou eyed him questioningly for a brief moment and then led him out of the room. Before Mapacha had locked the door, they heard the regimented thud of Mzee Tembo's footsteps as he marched towards them.
"Ola Mapacha, Banou."
"You guys are ready?"
"Where is Gwafa?"
"I'll go get him."
She strode towards his room, and before she knocked on the door, it swung open, and Gwafa, with his trademark lit cigarette, rocker t-shirt and a much out-of-character pair of blue denim city sweepers stood with a roguish grin.
She smiled. "Hi, Gwafa. You are ready to go?"
"Yes. Let's go."
Mapacha, slightly mortified by the weight of his own thoughts and the hesitation Banou had now reinforced, lead them back out to the terrace and literally on autopilot sat them at the same table they had enjoyed their dinner the previous night. Exasperated, he called for the waiter and quickly ordered rghaif and tea. Gwafa, not a morning breakfast person, ordered a cup of coffee. It would do with a Gauloises. Banou and Mzee Tembo opted for fruits and juice. It was a brief affair, and then Mzee Tembo's mind wore its operational uniform and snapped out orders.
"Everyone is clear on what the plan is?" he confirmed.
"Yes," they parroted like pupils.
"Right. Gwafa, let's go and find a car then we can get this thing started."
The receptionist directed them to a rental shop down the road near the train station. They marched towards the station and got there in less than two minutes, just as the crowds of people had begun to form as they embarked on their cross-country travels.
The wine red Simca 1501 Spécial seemed like a natural choice for their escapade. An upgrade from its precursor, the 1500, this bright red French family saloon was built with economy in mind over horsepower, but its major advantage was its ability to disappear among the numerous other French cars that roamed Rabat's roads. That and the fact that Simca had put great effort into the high beams made it ideal for a night run and it eclipsed other cars whose lights at times appeared as a grieved widow out on a stroll through a pitch-dark forest in the deep of the night with nothing more than a hurricane lamp with a sooted glass cover.
The interior was a spartan brown, with domestic touches like floor carpets that were actual carpets, dashboard equipment by Veglia that was difficult to decipher in the dark, a lockable and illuminated glove box and a rear split armrest. Though not the most vigorous engine in the industry, it was a step up from its predecessor, but, to get the most of out it, and get it roar and not purr, it needed an active driver to grind through the gears, a bit more frequent than for others cars, but that made it sparky. Its silhouette in the dark was comparable to a Mercedes, and the actual workmanship was quite impressive for an economy model. With Gwafa on the wheel and a map on Mzee Tembo's lap that the rental car company had provided, the engine whined through the streets of Rabat, joined the long trail that crossed the bridge across to Salé, and stopped at the jewellery shop near the Medina.
"That's the one," Mzee Tembo told Gwafa, as he pointed to it. "Ready?"
"Sure thing boss. Let's go."
Mzee Tembo, suddenly filled with vigour, slid out of the car and walked across the road while he straightened his beige shirt and brown pants, and made sure he looked the part. Gwafa trailed him, as he carefully observed the various shops and people nearby. Mzee Tembo heaved the heavy shop door open and let himself in and Gwafa followed him.
The interior surprised them. The floor was carpeted with a thick rich Moroccan rug in mauve with small, tiny diamond patterns in a shiny grey. The glass counter was thick and encased inside were bracelets, brooches, cufflinks, earrings, necklaces, pendants and watches of exquisite design that shimmered from the highly polished finishes of their rare metals. The bright overhead lights in the ceiling and inside the cases accentuated the burnished look and made everything seem more glamorous.
"Banou would have liked this," jested Gwafa.
Mzee Tembo found humour in that he knew that she would have broken her bank as she tried to buy the lot, or worse, she would have coerced them to burgle the place. Behind the cases was a gruff old bespectacled Moroccan with a thick moustache and 5 o'clock shadow, who cautiously observed them as they admired his shop.
Despite being cautious about them, his shrewd eyes read them immediately. They were not customers. The old man's browline glasses and plain clothes did not point to the wealth that his well-heeled customers and tourists naturally exuded. His scruffy companion did not border on rockstar material either. But before he disparaged them, Ossi did not let it deter his curiosity.
"Bonjour," he greeted them.
"Ça va," Gwafa responded.
"Are you Ossi?" Mzee Tembo asked the old man.
"Who is asking?"
Mzee Tembo and Gwafa stood silent before the old Moroccan spoke again.
"Yes, I am Ossi. Who are you?"
"My name is Tembo. This is Gwafa. Lourenço from Josephine asked us to meet you for an arrangement."
"I mean your name."
Ossi's virtual disguise evaporated and he smiled at Mzee Tembo.
"Ah yes. Lourenço's friends. How are you? Welcome to Morocco. Forgive my masquerade. I have to be careful these days, you never know who you are dealing with. Please, come in."
He motioned to them to enter the back of the shop, with a genial smile.
"This is my son, Kadour."
"Salaam," Kadour greeted them.
The young man was dressed in a crisp white shirt and well-cut dark blue pants. His impressively tidy haircut and well-defined moustache made him appear more composed that his father.
"Please Kadour, some tea?" Ossi asked him.
To them, that was a question but in reality, it was an instruction.