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The Mopane TreeA saga of Love and Intrigue
By WILLIAM Y. COOPER
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 WILLIAM Y. COOPER
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Damn," Joel Urban whispered. It's been a long time, he thought. Close to nine months and I still wake up at night in a sweat pit.
His gangly arm arced upward and he slid his black carry-on bag from the overhead rack. Rose from his seat, groped at his side to reassure his 35mm Minolta camera was secure.
That grotesque image remained etched in his brain like a tattoo. My beautiful Lylie, he remembered: sprawled on the red pile rug on our bedroom floor. Her favorite white silk pajama top with the yellow daffodil print, laced around her sunburned neck, and slightly exposing the roundness of her ripe breast. Her head in a sleep position nestled in the cradle of her right, bent elbow. A vision of ethereal loveliness. Except for a small bottle with a red and white label, clutched in her right hand. A sea of white capsules littered the red carpet around her half nude body.
"Excuse me. Pardon me, please," he mouthed to three passengers standing and chatting in the narrow aisle of the jumbo 747 jet plane. His bag held high above his head and his camera dangling precariously at his side, he wiggled and twisted his way to the exit.
Joel jolted down the waiting stairs with much a child's anticipation; landed on the gray, sun-baked tarmac. He'd been gone a month to the day.
Spiny cracks in the parched earth fanned out like fingers. His eyes followed this web until it fused out of sight.
He languished there, as if to get his bearings; gazed up at the yellow morning sun, squinted, and placed his sun glasses on the bridge of his nose. Reached casually into his jean pocket, retrieved a small pack and popped a yellow M & M into his mouth. Playful lizards scampered across his path. He knew then he was back in the enigmatic city—Dakar, Senegal.
That same adrenalin rush of warm water cascaded down his spine. Very much like the last time he and Blany were on the hunt, foraging for some of the rarest treasures and antiques on the African continent.
His eyes narrowed to slits as he peered through the ripples of heat waves dancing off the basalt, to see if he could spot Amadou.
"He's never late," he said. He knows my itinerary better than I do.
Aaah, that Amadou, he reminisced. He's sharper than a ... The time I browsed the silver market in Bascu, not really looking to buy. I was caught off guard by facets emanating from the depths of one of the most fascinating rubies, set in the center of an exquisitely modeled silver filigree broach. Immediately, I envisioned it draped around Lylie's neck, nestled in the warm cleavage of her twin cupcakes.
His peripheral vision caught a ten year old Senegalese boy ogling at him.
Seemingly, he realized my hesitation. He looked up. His brown eyes sparkled with a cherubic innocence. "Buy it," he said. I did.
Joel entered the airport concourse, a sudden change from bright to a cool blue. As if his eyes had played a trick on his vision; no Amadou. He was bum rushed by three rag-tag Senegalese boys. At a glance, they appeared to be between nine and twelve years of age. They looked like "circus runaways." A circus Joel knew, oh so well.
"Where's Amadou? Let go of my case, kid!" Joel jerked his black case and held it close to his side. For the moment the other two boys stayed back. Prancing in place, ready to pounce like tigers.
"Amadou sick," said the closest one, with one pant leg down and the other rolled up his bony leg to the knee. "He want you let me carry your suitcase."
"Well, who in the hell are you, and what have you done with Amadou?"
"I Asane. He say, I help you."
"Sorry, I can handle my bags myself. Maybe next time," Joel offered. "Okay?"
"Give us money," demanded a second kid, sporting a dirty, pock-marked face, in a dingy, grey, oversized Muhammad Ali t-shirt.
A third boy, shirtless, with a bloated stomach protruding from under a well defined rib cage, waved a tree limb above his head, pranced menacingly toward Joel who had now squared his back against the cinder block wall behind him.
Joel, himself, not the least unfamiliar to the plight of these boys, grew up in an orphan home. There he participated in several of the martial arts, including kick boxing as a means of self protection.
"Ok, ok," said Joel, his open palm thrust forward. "Ok, stand back. Listen, I'll make you a deal," he gulped in a bunch of hot air, "here's the deal." He straightened his body, his eyes flashed from one boy to the other, slowly lowered his bag to the floor beside him.
"The next time I come, let me bring you a gift from America. You know, United States ... How about a walkman, a DVD player, video game, or even ...?"
"Liar, liar," shouted Asane. He leaped, brandishing a shiny metal object in his right hand. Joel tried to take a step back; he was already against the wall. Now, Joel was surrounded by these crazed boys. Asane leaped in the air again; this time with a grisly scream that sent echoes bouncing throughout the terminal. Joel made a sweeping, wild swing with his camera strap. His Minolta met the knife wielding fist of Asane and the boy's fingers opened like bird's wings at take off. The knife went airborne. Joel ducked and it crashed the cinder-block wall just above his head and bounced with a loud clank on the concrete floor.
A crowd surged toward the scene, shouting like fanatics and shaking their fists at the three boys. The boys were now in retreat, backing down the corridor and out a side door.
"Are you alright, sir?" came an unusually high-pitched voice from the crowd. A tall, broad-shouldered man advanced from the group.
Joel's first guess is that this man was security of some kind, considering the service-type uniform and cap.
"You alright, Sir? Did you get a good look at them?"
"Oh, no, no, I mean, it's ok."
"Nonsense. I promise we will hunt down those gutter rats and put them where they belong," the man said.
Still rattled by what had happened, Joel retrieved his luggage and slung his camera across his shoulder.
Absorbed in thought, he couldn't help but wonder what was so important about the contents of his bag that someone would stoop to such measures as to hire kids to get it.
Joel with his case in tow and camera around his neck ambled down toward the airport exit with the intent to get a taxi along the way. He needed these moments to collect himself.
"Sir," called the voice of the uniformed man, "you are forgetting ..."
"You talking to me?" pointing to himself.
"Yes; customs," said the man.
"Oh, wow," said Joel.
Customs had become so routine for him he couldn't believe it slipped his mind.
"Perhaps I can accompany you?"
"No. No, but, thank you, Sir. That will not be necessary."
Joel approached customs. "Passport please," said the woman in the window.
He patted his jean pockets, then removed the passport from his shirt pocket. While she examined and stamped; Joel routinely pushed his "work permit" through the window.
After approval, Joel left the Airport with no intention of hailing a taxi. He decided to see a part of Dakar he was not familiar with to calm him.
I've always known the world had its ugly side, he thought to himself, but knowing certain things did not help me to rationalize what had just taken place; and the headlines just a night ago: "Second D.C. Artist in as Many Days Dies Mysteriously," splashed across the Washington Post.
An earlier headline brought back a familiar jolt to his heart: LYLIE URBAN, A BLACK WOMAN NEWSPAPER REPORTER DIED MYSTERIOUSLY. POLICE SUSPECT SUICIDE. HUSBAND, JOEL URBAN, A PERSON OF INTEREST IN THE CASE, WAS NOT HELD.
Pushed along by the crowd, Joel stepped aside momentarily to get a closer look at the ancient, sun-drenched Sandaga Market. It seemed even more daunting than when he and his wife Lylie last visited Dakar.
Its majestic façade and its ageless throngs of artesians, offering domestic and exotic goods to the locals as well as travelers from all over the globe. Joel flinched when one kid shoved a live turtle in his face. "Wanna buy?"
He noticed how the natural grace and statuesque beauty of Senegalese women reminded him of American runway models. Frocked in indigo, cola design fabrics, Joel was bedazzled. The appliqué of precious stones, artfully embroidered against broad, hand-colored patterns framed their swan-like necks.
He freed the captive air from his lungs; picked up the pace and turned off the main thoroughfare into a more placid atmosphere.
Red dust swept by hurricane type winds since the last monsoon rains had bathed everything in red, including this rugged, clay road. Gullies, like carved mountain ridges cut by local transportation vehicles pulled by different beasts of burden. Often during the season rains, oxen and mule powered carts would get bogged in the muck and left there until the rainy season ended, for lack of power to retrieve them.
"Brother, oh brother," came a low, raspy and somewhat strained voice from his left. All he could see was a dense group of Baobab trees languishing under the sun. A tree that African lore said was planted by God as a joke, upside down. Joel stood there trying to focus. He swabbed the stream of salty sweat welling in the corner of his eyes.
There were children emerging over a rising, carrying bunches of firewood on their heads and women carrying buckets of water that swayed precariously on their heads with the motion of their hips. A grungy, shaggy dog yapping frantically at the heels of a bunch of red sheep.
"Brother, brother ...," cried the same tired voice. It came from a little gray-bearded man. His face was as red and as wrinkled as the road.
"You look troubled," the man added.
He was barefoot and the red dust on his face allowed him to blend in well with the background of his surroundings. His attire was a hodge-podge of colorful swatches which made him appear to be dressed in a swaddling quilt.
"You full of misery," said the little man, "let me counsel you," as he groped a string of painted stones around his neck that he fondled, one by one.
In spite of his seemingly unsophisticated attire, there was a stately bearing about him that caused Joel to guess that he must be some kind of holy man, a soothsayer, maybe a chief.
The man jingled a string of cowrie shells at Joel. "Come, please," he beseeched.
Joel tried his best not to listen. "You are headed for many perils," the man said in his most foreboding voice, "I can help you."
Joel's face morphed into a grimace. He had given more of his time to the ramblings of this old man than he cared to.
Joel gazed upward, cupped his hand in a visor over his eyes. The great yellow disc, now orange, had streaked to its apex. The African sun is unforgiving, he mumbled.
Joel smiled to himself out of self embarrassment that a twenty-first century man of his progressive intellect would as much as entertain anything this little man had to say. After all, he'd tried everything modern medicine had come up with to subdue this monster residing in him. Just when he figured he'd dumped him, there he is. Takes him and drags him down into his abyss.
Why would I even think a crusty old elf who does not even know me, can do anything?
He gave no verbal response to the old man as he resumed his journey, tried hard to purge any memory of the old man's words from his brain. He reached into his pocket for an M & M. The dark chocolate oozed from the open pack and stuck between his fingers. He cursed and flung the gooey pack to the side of the road.
It's been quite a journey, thought Joel. 'Ole' quarter-horse ain't what he used to be.' Got a birthday coming up. Thirty-six and counting. It would seem odd for me to celebrate without Lylie. Last year, we danced on the "Maid of the Mist" while spray from the magnificent Niagara Falls cooled our faces and bodies.
The most distinguishing feature about Joel is the way he kept his black, neatly cropped mustache, which looked like his barber fashioned, and placed it above his top lip. His dreadlocks groomed, which he wore well, were not as fashionable in West Africa as in the U.S. These were his trademark, although he did not proclaim to be a Rastafarian.
Finally, he arrived at the docks. For Joel, it was none too soon. His sun-drenched body salivated at the pleasure this fifteen minute boat ride would bring.
Sea gulls met Joel with their usual hyjinx. Diving and swooping for today's catch of fish and passenger handouts.
In spite of the hardness of the cherry-wood seats; the ferry ride to the island, for him, was transforming. He found it comforting to catalogue his anxieties. Put them in lock-boxes, label them for later consideration. His weakness was keeping the lid on.
F.B.l. Agent Lester Reynolds was the proverbial "jack-in-the-box," with his constant stalking. Quizzing Joel's whereabouts and always about the same things—his frequent trips to Africa: "What did you do there this time? Did you bring anything back?" Joel had tried to explain, time and time again, how bad it looked for an F.B.I. agent to be seen at his studio and his home so much.
"I just want to be friendly, Joel," he'd say.
This kind of harassment, at a time like this, when his painting business wasn't very lucrative, was a pain in the ass. He accepted this job in Africa as a means to keep his and Lylie's head above water.
Joel exited the ferry down the short ramp and hop-scotched the several basalt flats laid out as a walkway. His overwhelming thought was how much he had missed the simple charms the island offered so freely.
He was greeted by a calm only disturbed by breaking waves and rustling leaves. Along the beach, tight bodies flexing their tired muscles greeted him as they dragged huge fishing nets ashore from today's catch. He glanced upward and caught a glimpse of flapping, low-flying sandpipers squawking and squeaking love calls to their mates.
"Hello Monsieur," a voice from his left: Soulemane the artist, a painter who had come to live on the island.
"Perhaps Mr. Urban I understand you are an artist. Maybe, we could have a painting session sometimes in the future."
Soulemane: a young man of slight stature. His olive complexion enhanced the brightness of his engaging smile, dark eyes and pearly white teeth.
"Why not—I'd like that," Joel said with not more than polite intentions.
His steps quickened when the building came into view, the Bed and Breakfast operated by Blany.
His short-sleeved, white linen shirt stuck to his chest like a contestant in a "wet t-shirt" contest. Joel stopped; brought air from deep inside and slowly let it out between his teeth. Raised his arm and brushed his forehead with the back of his hand.
He missed Amadou. My luggage has gained a ton, easy, he thought.
No one at the front desk. "Blany," he called out, an echo tantamount to a call in a funeral parlor. "Blany, I'm back!" A walk out on the veranda; no one there.
"What the hell," he blurted, I wanted to surprise her. I just wanted to ... he stopped ... she's not very much like Lylie.
Chapter TwoHis room was situated at the top of the stairs. He could see his door was slightly ajar. Maybe Blany went up before I got here. A mild tremor shot through his body as he thought—maybe Blany might be intending to surprise me. Nah. This followed by a flush of self embarrassment—he smiled.
Joel turned and walked out on the veranda.
I should get to the bottom of this. I could've left the door open myself, he pondered. No.
He tipped up the staircase. Took in a deep breath of stuffy air, placed his face at the crack of the door. The room was dark except for flickers of light from the lazy movements of curtains across the room. He squinted, he could make out clumpy, dark silhouettes of items strewn helter-skelter across the room.
Excerpted from The Mopane Tree by WILLIAM Y. COOPER Copyright © 2012 by WILLIAM Y. COOPER. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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