Read an Excerpt
Saturday 26th October
We were here again--if you call a hangover company or a slick of methylated sweat a friend-in this bar, this palmleaf-thatched shack set back from the sea in some fractious coconut palms, waiting for the barman to arrive. The head I was nursing (the first since last Saturday) had already been given some hot milk-the Ivorians called it coffee, I called it three grains of freeze-dried and a can of condensed milk. Now it wanted a hair of the dog, and not from any of those manky curs digging themselves into the cool sand outside, and not, definitely not, any of that White Horse that was galloping around my system last night, no sirree. An ice-cold beer was what was needed. One with tears beading on the bottle and the label peeling off. I held my hand out to see how steady we were. No horizontal hold at all. Where was that barman? Once he was here, there'd be security, there'd be options. I could decide whether to hold back and make it look pre-lunch rather than post-breakfast.
There he was. I could hear him, the barman, whistling that bloody tune, preparing himself for another day demonstrating the nuances of insouciance which had taken him a lifetime to refine. I sat back on the splintery wooden furniture, opened the Ivoire Soir and relaxed.
I'd bought the newspaper from a kiosk in Grand Bassam, the broken-down old port town where I was staying, which was a long spit down a palm-frayed shoreline from Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital city. I normally used it to stave off the first cold beer of the day and the boredom which came from three weeks waiting for the job I was supposed to be doing not to materialize. This time I was actually reading it. There was some ugly detail about a body, recently discovered in Abidjan, which the BBC World Service had told me, at five o'clock that morning, belonged to James Wilson. He had been a close aide to the President of the neighbouring country of Liberia and the President, as everybody in the Ivory Coast knew, had been captured, tortured and killed last month by the breakaway rebel faction leader, Jeremiah Finn.
The World Service had also told me that hundreds of civilian bodies had been uncovered in swampland just north of Springs Payne Airport outside the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and that over the past three days rebel soldiers from Samson Talbot's Liberian Democratic Front had buried more than 500 bodies of mainly Ghanaian and Nigerian civilians in mass graves four miles to the north west of the capital. All this before they rounded off their report on the country's civil war with the positive identification of the strangled and mutilated body of James Wilson who'd been found in the Ebrié lagoon near the Treichville quarter of Abidjan yesterday.
All this on snatches of dream-torn sleep, with a hangover to support, cold water to shave in and a body that was finding new ways to say-'Enough!' No. It had not been a morning for skipping down to the beach to dance 'highlife' into the long, torpid afternoon. It was a morning for taxing my patience, the beer-foam depth of my resolve, whilst trying to divert myself with the strange facts of James Wilson's death.
He'd been strangled with a piece of wire, which was the conventional bit, but then the killer had strayed into the occult by using a set of metal claws to open out the abdomen. These metal claws were used by members of the Leopard Societies who hadn't been heard of for some time. Their cardholders used to kill people who'd been accused of witchcraft and feed on their innards by the light of the moon. That's what it said. There'd been no moon the last three nights and the police had been informed by the coroner that James Wilson's innards had been eaten by fish. The reporter seemed disappointed. I made a mental note to hold off on the seafood whenever my next remittance came through.
The article finished with some conjecture as to why James Wilson's political career had ended with him as a gutless floater-a state, it occurred to me, that most politicians were making a success out of every day in the 'developed' world. The journo cited unnamed intelligence sources that linked the thirty-two-year-old James Wilson to the handing over of the late Liberian President to the lethal interrogation techniques of Jeremiah Finn and that it was Wilson's own Krahn tribe members who had given him the payback.
A cold beer appeared in front of me. I looked up at the barman who slipped back behind his cane-slatted bar and was giving me his 'eyelids at half-mast' routine.
'C'est quoi ça?' I asked, my watch still clipping its way round to 10.30 a.m.
'Une bière, M. Bru,' he said, fond of stating the obvious, and added, 'grande modèle,' meaning it was a full litre bottle of ice-cold Solibra and I should stop looking for philosophy when there was a serious opportunity to deaden myself to existence. I stood up so that I could see more than his flat-calm eye language and used my full six feet four inches to impress upon him that I gave the orders around here and I didn't like barmen making assumptions about my drinking habits. He pointed with his chin across the earthen floor into an obscure corner of the shack.
It was a shock to find that the obese half-caste who'd introduced himself to me yesterday as Fat Paul had managed to rumble in without my noticing. He was sitting there with his buttocks hanging over either side of one of the few metal chairs in the joint, wearing a bright-blue silk shirt with big white parakeets all over it. He gave me a little tinkling wave and a sad housewife's smile. I nodded, sat back down and blocked out the frosted, beading grande modèle with the full spread of the Ivoire Soir.
Fat Paul was sitting with George and Kwabena who'd been with him yesterday. I'd watched them getting out of a large black 1950s Cadillac with tail fins higher than sharks' dorsals and chrome work you could check your tonsils in. They'd come into the bar and chosen a table next to mine and Fat Paul had started talking to me as if he was a star and I was an extra in a movie's opening sequence in a bar on Route 66.
'I'm Fat Paul, who are you?'
'What they got here that's any good, Bruce?'
'How d'they do that?'
'They dip them in batter, deep fry them and coat them with sugar.'
'Sounds good. I'll have six. What you want?' he said, looking at Kwabena and George.
They'd sat in the same corner they were sitting in now and Fat Paul had ordered a bottle of beer and had it sent over to me. Later he'd asked me to join them for lunch and seeing as I had hell and all to do I went over without bothering with any of the 'no, no, thank you' crap.
Before I'd sat down they'd asked me if I was a tourist and when I'd said no Kwabena had produced a chair from behind his back and had let me sit on it. The conversation hadn't exactly zipped around the table while we were eating but afterwards, while Fat Paul was taking a digestif of another four pineapple fritters, he'd asked me what I did for a living.
'I do jobs for people who don't want to do the jobs themselves. I do bits of business, management, organization, negotiations, transactions, and debt collection. Sometimes I find people who've gone missing. Sometimes I just talk to people on behalf of someone else. The only things I don't do are criminal things...that...and domestic trouble. I won't have anything to do with husbands, wives and lovers.'
'You been asked that before,' said Fat Paul, chuckling.
Soon after that they'd paid the bill and left but, by the way Fat Paul had looked back at me from the doorway, I'd expected to see him again, and here he was, the twenty-five-stone pineapple-fritter bin. He made it look so easy, but that's talent for you.
'You want join us for lunch, Mr Bruce?' said Kwabena, measuring each word as it came out and looming dark in my light so that I couldn't read the paper.
'It's ten-thirty in the morning,' I said, and Kwabena looked back at Fat Paul, lacking the programming to get any further into normal human relations without more guidance.
'You got t'eat!' shouted Fat Paul across the bar. 'Keep you strength up.'
Kwabena picked up the bottle of beer between his thumb and forefinger and took three strides across to Fat Paul's table. The barman turned on the radio, which immediately played the hit of the year he'd been whistling earlier. Its single lyric was so good that they felt the need to repeat it three times an hour. It was the kind of song that could make people go into public places and kill.
'C'est bon pour le moral. C'est bon pour le moral,
C'est bon, bon. C'est bon, bon.
C'est bon pour le moral...'
My 'moral' dipped as I looked at Fat Paul's buried eyes, which were like two raisins pressed into some dough so old that it had taken on a light-brown sheen. The mild contour of his nose rose and fell across his face and his nostrils were a currant stud each and widely spaced almost above the corners of his mouth, which had a chipolata lower lip and did a poor job of hiding some dark gums and brown lower teeth. He had a goitrous neck which hung below the hint of his chin and shook like the sac of a cow's udder. A gold chain hid itself in the crease of skin that came from the back of his neck before exiting on to the smooth, hairlessness of his chest. He had a full head of black hair which for some reason he felt looked great crinkle cut and dipped in chip fat.
The one thing that could be said of Fat Paul was that he was fat. He was fat enough not to know what was occurring below his waist unless he had mirrors on sticks and a jigsaw imagination. He told me that he had a very slow metabolism. I suggested he had no metabolism at all and he said, no, no, he could feel it moving at night. I put it to him that it might just be the day's consumption shifting and settling. This vision of his digestive system so unnerved him that he lost his appetite for a full minute.
Fat Paul's nationality wasn't clear. There was some African in there and perhaps some Lebanese or even American. To me he spoke English in a mixture of ex-colonial African and American movies, to George and Kwabena he used the Tui language.
George was a tall, handsome Ghanaian who was wearing a white short-sleeve shirt and a tie which he had contrived so that one end covered his crotch and the other stuck out like a tongue from the black-hole density of the knot at his top button. The tie was white with horses pounding across it with jockeys on their backs in wild silks. He hid behind some steel-rimmed aviator sunglasses and did what he was good at-letting his tie do the talking.
Kwabena was a colossus. His cast was probably taking up some valuable warehouse space in the steelworks where he'd been poured. His frame was covered by very black skin which had taken on a kind of bloom, as if it had been recently tempered by fire. He wore a loud blue and yellow shirt which had been made to go over an American football harness but nipped him around the shoulders. He sat with his mouth slightly open and blinked once a minute while his hands hung between his knees preparing to reshape facial landscapes. He looked slow but I wouldn't have liked to be the one to test his reactions. If he caught you and he'd been programmed right he'd have you down to constituent parts in a minute.
'What was it you say you doin'?' asked Fat Paul, the fourth pineapple fritter of the morning slipping into his mouth like a letter into a pillar box.
'When I'm doing it, you mean?'
He laughed with his shoulders and then licked his fingers one by one, holding them up counting off my business talents.
'Management, negotiations, debt collection, organization, findin' missin' people, talkin' to people for udder people...no, I'm forgettin' some...'
'Transactions,' I said.
'Transactions,' repeated Fat Paul, nodding at me so I knew I'd got it right.
'As long as it's not criminal.'
'And no fucky-fucky business,' finished Fat Paul.
'I've not heard it put like that before.'
'Sorry,' he said, beckoning to Kwabena for a cigarette, ''swat 'sall about, you know, jig-a-jig, fucky-fucky. I no blame you. Thass no man's business. But transactions. Now there's somethin'. Somethin' for you. Make you some money.'
'What did you have in mind?'
Fat Paul clicked the fingers he'd been sucking and George opened a zip-topped case and handed him a package which he gave to me. It was a padded envelope with a box in it. The envelope had been sealed with red wax and there was the impression of a scorpion in the wax. It was addressed to M. Kantari in Korhogo, a town in the north of the Ivory Coast, where I was expecting to be sent any day now to sort out a 'small problem'.
'How d'you know I was going to Korhogo?' I asked, and Fat Paul looked freaked.
'You gonna Korhogo...when?'
'I don't know. I've got a job to do there. I'm waiting for instructions to come through.'
'No, no-this not for Korhogo.'
'That's what it says here.'
'No. You deliver it to someone who take it to Korhogo.'
'I see,' I said, nodding. 'Is that strange, Fat Paul?'
'Not strange. Not strange at all,' he said quickly. 'He gonna give you some money for the package. You go takin' it up Korhogo side then you up there wid the money and we down here wid...'
'Waiting for me to come back down again.'
'That's right. We got no time for waitin'.'
'Why don't you deliver it yourself?'
'I need white man for the job,' said Fat Paul. 'The drop ibbe made by 'nother white man, he only wan' eal with white man. He say African people in this kind work too nervous, too jumpy, they makin' mistake, they no turnin' up on time, they go for bush, they blowin' it. He no deal with African man.'
'There can't be that many white people up in Korhogo.'
'Ten, mebbe fiftee', 's 'nough.'
'The drop? Why did you call it the drop?'
'You callin' it transaction. I callin' it a drop.'
'Where and when is this drop?'
'Outside of Abidjan, west side, down by the lagoon Ebrié, eight-thirty tomorrow night.'
'The white man no wan' come to Abidjan, he no wanbe seen there, he have his own problems, I donno why.'
'Why don't you just go to Korhogo and cut out the middlemen?'
'We'-he pointed to himself who could easily pass for plural-'we no wango Korhogo, too much far, too much long.'
'Well, it sounds funny to me, Fat Paul. Nothing criminal. Remember.'
'I rememberin' everythin' and this no funny thin', you know. You jes' givin' a man a package an' he givin' you some money. You takin' you pay from the money an' givin' us the rest. I'm not seein' anythin' crinimal,' he said, getting the word wrong and not bothering to go over it again.
'What's in it?' I asked rattling the package, and Fat Paul didn't say anything. 'A video cassette?'
Fat Paul nodded and said, 'What you puttin' on a video cassette that's criminal?'
'How about child pornography?'
'Hah!' He sprung back from the table. 'This nothin' like that kind thin'.'
I gave him his package.
'You not gonna do it?'
'I'm going to think about it.'
He smiled and raised his eyebrows.
'Mebbe I'm helpin' you think. I'm payin' two hundred and fifty thousand CFA do this job, a thousand dollars, you understandin' me?'
'But none of it upfront?'
'You workin' for African people now, we no have the money 'fore somebody give it. Not like white people, they always havin' money...'
'Well, now I know what you want, I'll think about it.'
'You got any questions you wan' aks?'
Tomorrow. I'll have some questions tomorrow.'
'You tekkin' long time think up you questions. How many you got?'
'If I knew that I'd ask them now.'
'You jes' give the man the package. And the man'-he slowed up for my benefit-'the man he give you an envelope, wax sealed like this one. In the envelope is the money. You don't have to coun' it. Just tek it. Give one hand, tek the other. Is ver' simple thin'. I mean, Kwabena he could do it without troublin' he head 'cept he black. He only jes' come down from the trees. Still scratching hisself under the arms. No be so, Kwabena?'
Kwabena grinned at Fat Paul's insult with a twinkling set of ivories and so little malevolence it would concern me if he was my bodyguard.
'Don' be fool',' said Fat Paul, reading my thoughts, 'he lookin' kind and nice like mama's bo' but, you see, he got no feelin'. He got no feelin' one way 'rother. You go run wid the money. I say, "Kwabena, Mr Bruce go run with the money." He find you, tek you and brek you things off like spider thing. You got me?'
'No plobrem,' said Kwabena slowly.
'Time we goin',' said Fat Paul, looking at a watch on a stretch-metal strap which was halfway up his forearm. 'Leave Mr Bruce time for thinkin'. Time for thinkin' all these questions he gonna aks. I'm goin' rest, lie down, prepare mysel' for the big game.'
Kwabena helped Fat Paul to his feet. The waist of his dark-blue trousers had been made to go around the widest part of his body so that the flies were a couple of feet long, the zipper coming from an upholsterer rather than a tailor. He was bare-ankled and wore slip-on shoes because he couldn't get over his stomach to put on complicated things like socks and lace-ups.
'I like you, Bruce,' said Fat Paul.
'How do you know?'
'You smell nice,' he said, and laughed. He laughed hard enough so that I hoped he wouldn't bust his gut and he was still laughing when he left the shack, hitting the doorjamb a glancing blow and nearly bringing the whole thing down. A dog appeared at the door, attracted by the laughter, thinking it might mean good humour and scraps handed down with abandon. The barman hit him on the nose with a beer-bottle top and he got the picture and took off with his bum close to the floor, leaving us with only a thin thread of music on the radio for entertainment.
Copyright © Robert Wilson 1996
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording,
or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.