NOV 5, 2022
Despite her revulsion from tippling and Nsia's in general, Banou devoted her time to Nsia herself. She enjoyed her moment up on the terrace, as she wafted blue smoke. Nsia had concocted a sumptuous meal. Chicken, sautéd in butter, minced garlic and onions then fused into a spicy broth with tomatoes, ginger, lemon wedges and black pepper with a tease of dry red wine. Banou's virtue as a teetotaler withheld as she continued with her tropical drinks over Nsia's insistence that she join her in imbibing on her hard-pressed homemade sangria. After the meal, Nsia was still precarious about her reformation.
"Banou, you have quit the sauce eh?" Nsia was still provocative.
Banou was lost in the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
"You know Nsia, these guys, they have given me back some dignity. They have presented me the possibility of leaving 'the life', no more tourists, no more bars, maybe even one day I will get married."
That was a laughable notion in Nsia's book. Banou would consider a husband? If she could believe that any man would disregard her sullied past, the scandal that had placed her there would certainly torpedo that fantasy. Regardless, whatever Banou was caught up in had to have been really good.
"Did Mapacha 'straighten' you out with his trunk?" she prodded playfully. Banou did not bite.
"You mustn't forget old Nsia, eh?" she said hopefully.
Banou chuckled. "Nsia, you are family to me. You supported me when nobody would. I can never abandon you."
Nsia gave her an affectionate embrace and continued gabbing. Banou's pensive mood distracted her, and she failed to notice Nsia's dilated pupils.
The brilliantly red and orange sunset cast its fading tropical stream over the island. She appreciated the view from here. Nsia has returned to administer her 'zoo' as she had christened it, while Banou oscillated between naps, daydreams and cigarettes. The sun ultimately disappeared. She stood and flicked a switch on one of the wooden beams. The multitude of various hues softly illuminated the terrace. Beneath her, the blaring speakers blasted 'Easy Come Easy Go' by The Pioneers. She could hear Nsia as she shrilled in the struggle to manage the chaos that was her bar. As the record turned and more reggae poured out, she heard the heavy shuffle of Mzee Tembo's thick feet as he struggled up the staircase.
"Banou," he called out to her from the landing.
Her smile curved out effortlessly. She was genuinely delighted to see him.
"Ola, Mzee Tembo."
Mapacha came up behind him and as he stood on the landing, he nodded at her.
It had the makings of a classroom. Behind him came a rakish-looking man dressed in olive flared riding breeches that ended in tall brown flying boots and a rock t-shirt carrying a brown leather holdall. She wanted to laugh at his comical appearance, but his green eyes glistened in a sinister gleam that coupled with his steely face frightened her. She stood up.
The rakish man's crafty smile cracked his stern look. "Bonsoir mademoiselle," his guttural French accent gushed out. "I'm Gwafa."
"I'm Banou." She wasn't uncertain about her next words. "Please, have a seat. Let me get you guys some drinks. What would you like Gwafa?"
"Whatever these guys are drinking."
Simple enough. Tropical drinks for everyone. She hopped down the stairs and after a brief moment returned with the barmaid who served the drinks. They all picked their glasses as she sat down, instinctively pulled out her pack of cigarettes, drew a stick and quickly lit it. Mzee Tembo was mum until he was confident that the barmaid was out of earshot.
"OK. Mapacha, you have met him. This is Gwafa, from Algeria. He is a pilot and owns his own plane. He does business all over the region, deals mostly in cargo."
"Kabyle." Gwafa intoned as he interrupted Mzee Tembo.
"Indeed. Kabyle. In Algeria." he corrected himself.
Gwafa smiled, nodded and as Mzee Tembo went to continue, Gwafa cut him short again.
"Ah yes. So my business is flying. If you need to go somewhere quietly or require something brought in discreetly, I am your guy. No problem." he grinned and revealed his pearly whites.
Mzee Tembo remained mute for a moment and ascertained that Gwafa was done.
"OK! OK! We know why we are here and I want Gwafa to join us because he knows Abidjan owns a plane that can get us in, take us round and then out."
Gwafa's charm had momentarily disarmed her, but to her, he was a stranger, even though his figure was impressive. This stirred her apprehension once again. She looked at Mapacha. His light brown eyes intensely analysed Gwafa.
"I know it means a smaller cut for all of us, but the job is considerably bigger if the Englishman's documents are to be believed. It will all even out." Mzee Tembo continued.
"So Gwafa is an equal partner then?" Mapacha asked.
"Definitely. We will consider him as one of us."
The idea of the division of assets remained undiscussed, and this posed a problem. The loot from their last job had still not been properly dished out, given that Umaru had not yet completed payment for the loot.
Gwafa sensed their apprehension. "Look, guys, I want you to trust me, and trust is hard, but if we plan and stick together, then everything will be well. Do you see Tembo over here? I trust him with my life." Gwafa did. Not that Mzee Tembo had gotten him out of trouble, but when he smuggled things for them, he had paid upfront and dealt with customs, and that flawless run had impressed Gwafa.
"So you are saying we can trust you?" Banou's mouth redundantly presented her inner monologue.
Mzee Tembo was caught off-guard. Banou's mouth had run. Gwafa, however, took in the question. It was fair and direct which he respected. The French part of him faintly hated how Mzee Tembo conservatively tiptoed around delicate issues. Before Gwafa could answer, Mzee Tembo's voice thundered.
"Non!" Gwafa waved him off. "This is a relevant question. She doesn't know me."
He set himself deep into the chair as he drew a pale blue pack of Gauloises Caporals from his pants. In one fluid motion, he stuck a cigarette between his lips, picked up Banou's matches and sparked it. Gwafa then stared at the Gallic helmet logo emblazoned on the pack.
"You don't have to trust me right now. Let my work speak for itself, no? After all, you have encountered your own issues."
Banou cursed inwardly at the landmine she had freely walked on. That damn scandal would haunt her for the rest of her life? There was only room for a forced smile. Gwafa had played his hand well. The heavy silence romped in the breeze. Mapacha, silently watched as he enjoyed his tropical drink.
"So," Gwafa broke the tension, "I have this plane, my amoureuse, A Douglas C-47 that I bought from Léopoldville a few years after the coup. It was used by the English. They did not need it anymore, so I picked it up for next to nothing. Now, I use her for my business, transport things, sometimes people, it depends on what people are willing to pay."
That sealed it for her. Banou understood his motivation. Money, with a side dish of danger. He enjoyed the adventure. She cursed. Two Mzee Tembos.
"Could be worse," she considered.
"In any event, when we do the job, we transport them back in these diplomatic bags."
He produced a small black leather pouch embossed with the Royal Arms and a miniature Union Jack from his holdall. Underneath, 'DIPLOMATIC BAG' was written and underneath that, the serial number of the bag. On the side was a small strap with a red-ringed white tag that had a cotton drawstring.
"How do you have this?" Banou asked.
"Well, I am the official air courier of diplomatic mail for the embassies. Since they want me to deliver them some stuff not found here, they gave me some bags to bring things in for them. Since it contains diplomatic cover, no customs officer will ever search it. This is an advantage, no?"
Mzee Tembo beamed. It was so easy. They already had their secret weapon. This couldn't be any easier.
"So, now that we have solved this problem, can we review our tasks again?" Mzee Tembo asked.
Banou was astounded to silence. She was in a conspiracy of this incredible plot that was being discussed casually before her. Worse, she was the linchpin. Mzee Tembo carefully detailed their plan, with Gwafa intoning every so often.
"What do you think, big guy?" Gwafa asked Mapacha. "You are quiet. You don't talk much eh?"
Mapacha reflected on the plan. It felt a lot like his military days, except he was the bad guy. That idea forced him to recognise the perils in the plan.
"Well, this is a serious plan. But if the boss says it's ok to go, we go. No problem. I have a question."
All the eyes turned to Mapacha. "We have an idea of where the diamonds are, but what if the information has changed? What if the safe is different? Or maybe the house has been changed? What do we do then?"
Mzee Tembo had not considered this.
"I would be unworried about this. The documents are recent, so, it's unlikely the guy has changed the safe. In any case, we might need explosives assuming we cannot open the safe, so I will take care of this. Gwafa, can you get the equipment into Abidjan?"
Gwafa's charming smile crooked his determined face. "But of course. This should not be a big issue."
"Now, the only thing pending is you Banou," Mzee Tembo said, as he levelled his eyes on her. "We were all in armed service but you were not. You will need training on how to handle a gun. Things could get problematic."
"But Mzee Tembo, I am not a fan of guns."
"Neither are we," he lied. He loved guns. "We might require you to handle one because we might get in trouble and you might be the only one to save us."
He played on her vanity. A heroine. She hesitatingly ate it up.
"OK. If you say so."
"Good," he smiled. "Come tomorrow round 10.00 AM and I will show you how things work. Mapacha, bring your gun too. You need practice."
Banou needed a drink badly. Mapacha was confounded by the idea that Mzee Tembo knew he had a gun. His contacts at 'Armaments' must have informed him. On his clearance form, the Quartermaster had marked an 'X' on the form indicating that his weapon had been misplaced while he was in an active combat zone. That was enough to see his discharge through. In reality, Mapacha had clung to his weapon, and while he recuperated, he had secreted it underneath his pillow. This had startled many attendants who had replaced his sheets and fluffed his pillow. They had naturally reported it to the Matron, who had escalated it up to the Chief Surgeon who had reported it to the Quartermaster. The chain came down quickly. "Don't bother him, and he will not bother you." So, they had learnt to cautiously work round it.
"One last thing, are your passports current?" Mzee Tembo asked.
Banou replied first. "I need to renew mine."
Mapacha's response surprised everyone. "I don't have a passport."
His travels were limited to that singular military assignment after which his red passport had been punched into obscurity when he was discharged.
"OK. Tomorrow afternoon, we shall go visit my friend, and he shall sort you out. Bring your papers." He looked over the table and ensured that he had addressed everything that needed attending to. "Banou, can we get a small bite before we leave?"
"Yes, let me organise something."
She gladly escaped the furnace of that discussion, walked down the stairs and went to seek the barmaid. A moment later, she returned with her and Nsia.
"Ola! Ola!" Nsia enthusiastically greeted them. It delighted her to see Mzee Tembo comfortably perched on the terrace seated next to a new guy.
"Ola Mapacha," she greeted with a flowery voice. The tone made him slightly uncomfortable. He recognised her provocation.
"Welcome to my bar. I am glad you are enjoying the terrace. This is purely for my distinguished guests. I am bringing you guys some more tropical drinks. Or would you like anything different?"
Mapacha remained silent as did Mzee Tembo.
"Juice for all of us." Banou offered.
"Actually do you have any international beer?" Gwafa asked.
Nsia quickly clocked in on his distinct French accent and mentally unfurled her French beer menu.
"I can get you Pelforth. Or 1664?"
Gwafa smiled. "1664." Not his favourite, but it would do.
Nsia was pleased. "Good! Good! Now, this evening, we have Moroccan lamb stew served with rice. Is everyone OK with this?"
"That is splendid," Mzee Tembo cheerfully responded.
For Mapacha, hearing Nsia outline exotic meals was a revelation. She only presented local dishes, so this foray into a foreign avenue was new. He failed to recognise that for Nsia, this was a dress rehearsal. She might have run the bar to pay the bills, but she had ambitions of owning a fine establishment, with better clientele than the brutes she was accustomed to. The approval of Mzee Tembo and the new guy would validate her dream, and let her know she was on the right path.
"Food will be served in ten minutes," she said as she ushered the confused barmaid down the terrace staircase.
Certain they were out of view, Nsia drew five pounds from the wad hidden in her bra and gave it to the barmaid.
"Run up to The St. George, go through the back and ask for Beni. Tell him I sent you and to give you five bottles of 1664 Kronenbourg."
The St. George was a centrepiece hotel that primarily catered to government officials. It was their favourite location for official events, and its discretion meant that locals and officials that needed to lay low for an intimate moment could use one of the various 'discrete' entrances and disappear into one of its ornately furnished suites. The well-developed menu was the only other item that appealed to its guests, though its location, within the seedy side of Josephine put-off tourists. Its attempt at international appeal meant foreign beers were routinely imported, though they were seldom consumed within the hotel, smaller outfits would periodically obtain loose bootles, and that somehow kept the supply chain rolling. The barmaid sprinted towards the back gate, eager to impress Nsia.
While they waited for their meal, Gwafa animatedly recalled his life in France. He recalled the flight education he received in Salon-de-Provence Air Base, his 'defection' to Algeria to fight in the Socialist Forces Front Kabyle rebellion and how the Tell Atlas dazzled. To Gwafa, it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. His ponytail bounced amusingly as he explained to them the complexities of Algerian politics, though, in the end, his sombre tone betrayed his disillusion with said complexities.
Amidst the chaos of her petite jungle, Nsia pored over every aspect of her presentation. The dishes were laid on her finest china, while the tropical juices, extra thick with the plumpest fruits were decanted carefully into the gnarled lowballs after which she wiped any drip instances with a piping hot cloth. The barmaid returned with a rapid pant as her face glistened with sweat. She handed over the small carrier bag.
"Good work!" The beers were still cold. She set two bottles of beer on the tray and had two of her best maids carry the trays out of the back door up the terrace. At the top, Nsia personally served everyone their food and drinks. Banou noted Nsia's deftness with curiosity.
The savoury herbal scent of the Moroccan spices kindled their appetites. Nsia had selected the best lamb she could find at the market and mingled it with a frothy chickpea broth. She then added bell peppers, parsnips and plum tomatoes. To tantalise the exotic parts of their palates, she had speckled some paprika, turmeric, a few bay leaves and some cilantro. To round it off, she added a bit of cous cous and half-sliced potatoes which she served with yellowed Lebanese rice. The maids dutifully lumbered down, while Nsia waited to see if they needed anything else. They barely noted as she waltzed down the stairs and peeked as they silently ate with monosyllabic complements. It was an electrifying triumph. Her mission was splendidly on course.
A half-hour later, she returned to find polished plates and a tipsy-looking Gwafa. Mzee Tembo slowly rubbed his jutting belly as he burped in satisfaction.
"Nsia, I'm an old man," he mused. "That meal could kill me."
She politely giggled, appreciative of the comment.
"Last round," she offered as she gathered the plates and carefully stacked them on the tray set on the side table. They scrutinised her sceptically.
"Nsia, is there a slaughter you plan on taking us to?" Banu cajoled her.
She blushed as she picked up the dish-laden tray and walked down the stairs. Barely a minute later, a tray of drinks was rushed up. Gwafa looked slightly worse for wear as he lit a cigarette, while Banou was already partway through hers as tiny driblets of sweat crept down her lower back. Mapacha, looking flustered had patches of armpit sweat on his t-shirt, and he happily picked up the juice. Gwafa polished off his last two beers, and slowly staggered down the stairs to the lavatory. He came out looking a bit more straightened out, entered the bar, found Nsia, thrust a bundle of notes that were more than enough for the meal, winked at her and left. He found the others had already descended to the foot of the bar. There had been some last-minute small talk before he headed up the hill with Mzee Tembo towards the Peugeot. Banou and Mapacha entered the bar, and he went round to the back of the bar where Abril was enjoying a tropical drink. He motioned to her, and she abruptly stood up and walked towards him, the glass still in her hand. He waved at Banou who was seated next to Nsia, as Abril gulped the last of her drink and placed the glass on the counter. Under the starry night, she forced her hand into his and as two lovers they sauntered into the dark towards his tiny shack. That meeting reinforced Mapacha's belief that this course was suitable enough. He just needed to settle his racing thoughts and determine the cleverest way to manage the chaos on the horizon.