We are very excited to be able to share another chapter of J S Fortuna's Night Runners with you. In the first two chapters we were introduced to Alex, a Kenyan policeman in a remote border town with a weakness for miraa, a native stimulant.
In this chapter Alex is showing a couple (Sarah and Matt) around the town when they come across something disturbing.
Please let us know what you thought of the piece either in the comments section below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At dawn, a jogoo punctuated the silence with a single crow that culminated in an awful screeching sound. The jogoo jumped up onto the roof next to Alex’s hotel and sent forth a second deeper crow. It was as if it were annoyed that humans had not woken up yet and felt the urge to alert them to the rising sun. Alex opened his eyes and peered out of the hotel window. The jogoo stood facing him on the rooftop. Alex muttered some obscenities at it, rolled back into bed, and slept for rest of the day.
When he woke up it was around 6pm and the sun had just set. He felt a sudden pang of loneliness, and knew he needed some company. Alex picked up his phone and called Joseph.
‘Sema’, he said in a jovial voice.
Joseph’s voice was slurred, and Alex could hear the rumble of his 4x4 in the background.
‘Come down to the Sportsview for a drink with me’.
‘Umm...well, I’m taking Sarah and Matt to The Blue York’.
‘Come along after’.
‘We’ll see you after dinner’.
Joseph turned into the entrance of the hotel and switched off his phone. It dropped heavily onto the dashboard.
‘Ok, here we are’.
Sarah and Matt gazed disappointingly at the low, faded façade of The Blue York Hotel. Joseph had said it was expensive and prestigious. He had encouraged the idea that it might meet their exacting standards. Sarah noticed that two small, diseased palm trees had been tucked behind the entranceway so as to be obscured by the porters. This wasn’t a good sign.
As they entered the lobby they were greeted by large colonial style windows with voluminous net curtains, and a polished lilac concrete floor. They were swept into the main dining room which was crammed with people chatting loudly at large round tables. Each table was closely attended by an army of nervous waiters. Everyone appeared to be dressed to be seen. Sarah thought it had the pastel blue atmosphere of a Conservative Party members’ dinner from the 1970s.
The waiter gently pulled out their chairs as Joseph tried to remedy their obvious disappointment with anecdotes about the menu.
‘I think I’ll have the tilapia’, Sarah said finally. She felt like she must try this local fish.
‘Yes, good choice’.
‘I’ll ask the waiter to make sure it’s very clean’, Joseph said with a slightly mocking smile.
‘The lakeshore is very silty, and it can sometimes effect the taste of the fish’.
‘Ah, I see’.
‘I’m sure they will only pick the best specimens here though’.
When it arrived, the tilapia looked delicious. It was large with grey scales and beautifully fluffy white flesh. It had been fried with tomatoes, and local greens, and came with a mound of white rice. Sarah enjoyed the ritual of a full, cooked meal far from home.
When they got up to leave Sarah was surprised to notice that Joseph was not any more drunk than when they had arrived. He lifted himself heavily from his chair but was sturdy on his feet and coherent. In contrast, she and Matt were quite drunk. On the way through town they joked, and laughed, bobbing around on the back seat. Joseph entertained them with stories about visits to farmers which invariably ended with the presentation of a goat or cow, which he had to deposit with an obliging neighbour who had the time and inclination to look after it. They drove on past the main part of town and towards the outskirts. The road was now pitch black and strangely foreboding. Sarah became a little paranoid about a wild animal jumping out of the bush at them. She had been relentlessly teased about it during her training in Nairobi.
Sarah noticed that the rocking headlights of their truck had caught a small, angular white shape. A man’s shirt was just visible on the edge of the road. It contrasted sharply against the dense dust and grit. A man’s head and arms were tucked under his body awkwardly. He was dead, of course he was dead. No man can rest in that position; rolled over and scrunched up.
Sarah tried desperately to peer further into the darkness as the white triangle got closer and closer. Soon the truck was close enough for her to make out the shape of the blood-stained white shirt, slumped head, and mangled legs splayed out to the side; almost invisible against the bushes.
‘There!’ she shouted.
‘There’s a man lying by the side of the road in a white shirt!’.
‘Where?’ Joseph called back from the driver’s seat.
‘Just on the left’, ‘It’s getting closer!’
‘Oh, Oh!’ exclaimed Joseph in a calm, but sorrowful manner.
‘That man is not alive’ he said gently.
Sarah could barely comprehend what she could see looming up in front of the truck.
‘We must stop!’.
‘No no’, ‘it’s not safe’.
‘He’s a drunk that has been robbed or run over’.
‘There’s nothing we can do for him’.
‘But…but…, he’s by the side of the road!’.
‘Yes’, Joseph tried to say it with some finality.
He had picked up a bit of speed so as not to linger near dead man.
‘Please can we go back?’.
‘Please, Joseph?’ Sarah said tearfully.
‘I’m afraid we can’t’.
Sarah sat stunned next to Matt who didn’t seem to be able to take it in. He was drunker than her. Joseph drove further up the road, swerving a little to avoid the potholes. Easing in and out each pothole; like a trawler takes a wave.
‘You can tell Alex when we get to the Sportsview Hotel’, Joseph called back, but there was silence.
‘He’ll call one of the men on duty tonight’.
‘They can go and pick him up’.
‘Are you sure?’.
‘Yes, he’ll know what to do’.
Alex sat quietly finishing his dinner in the hotel lobby. He noisily scraped the last remnants of mlima from his plate; a habit from childhood. Sarah rushed up to him as if he were an old friend, and slowed her approach realising he was really a total stranger.
‘Hello’, ‘How was your dinner?’.
‘Good, thanks’, ‘I had fried tilapia. It was really nice’.
‘Ah, a local dish’, he said with a smile.
Joseph and Matt joined them.
‘Msuri sana’, Joseph said when he saw Alex was sitting down to a proper wholesome meal.
‘How are you, rafiki?’
Alex laughed to himself. Kenyans do not generally refer to their friends as rafiki, but Joseph liked to mix up languages, and be flamboyant in front of foreigners.
‘I’m a little tired, Joseph’.
Joseph ignored this comment and beckoned everyone to the bar.
‘Come have a Tusker’, he urged.
Sarah edged closer to Alex and began to tell him about the man on the roadside. He listened attentively and tried to explain it to her the best he could;
‘Listen, in a place like this you have to look after yourself’.
‘There are no ambulances to pick you up, especially at night, and you’d be lucky to rouse a doctor’.
‘The nearest hospital is quiet far away, and if you are losing a lot of blood it may not be worth going’.
‘I’m not a medic but let me call my colleague to see if he can drive round to check him’. ‘If he’s still alive than maybe we can get him to a hospital in Kisumu’.
‘I know it’s hard for you’.
‘I have seen many things in this job, but it doesn’t make it any easier’.
‘Aren’t you concerned about what happened to him?’, ‘Isn’t it a police matter?’.
‘Yes, my colleague will write an accident report for the station, but my guess is that he was walking home hopelessly drunk and strayed into the path of oncoming traffic’.
‘It’s tragic, but I’m afraid it happens’, he said hoping that they could move onto a lighter subject.
Sarah sighed. She wasn’t sure what to make of his attitude, or the stark realities of life in this town. She sunk down into one of the red velour chairs in the lobby, trying to reconcile the differences, and at the same time trying to understand them through a haze of Tusker beer.
Joseph had gone home to his wife, but Sarah and Matt insisted on carrying on drinking. Alex merely sipped at a couple of beers to be sociable. He would rather have chewed miraa, but it wasn’t the right time, or place, for it. He sat back in his chair as the others recounted how their 4x4 had been commandeered by the chief of Vuyika village, so he could sort out a neighbourhood dispute. Alex looked up once the conversation had ceased and raised his glass.
‘Who would like to hear a local folk tale?’.
‘Yes!’ shouted Sarah as she turned to look at Matt. She noticed that he was unable to speak but had raised his glass in agreement.
‘The local Luos call them night runners, or jajouk in Dholuo’.
‘Jajouk are people who run around naked at night, knocking on doors or throwing stones on iron sheet roofs to disturb people in their sleep. The Luo elders say they have been around since time immemorial.
‘Some jajouk derive excitement from brandishing fiery torches or parts of exhumed corpses’.
‘Others cry or imitate the sound of small children being strangled’.
‘People say that they are ordinary church-going people who become possessed at night’.
‘There is a belief in Nyanza and Western provinces that the jajouk are too fast to be caught’.
‘When they are caught, some are lynched, while others are left as they are considered harmless’.
‘The jajouk are sometimes violent, but mostly they try to scare their victims with weapons, snakes or dismembered corpses’.
Alex looked across at Sarah and Matt and grinned from ear to ear. Sarah had screwed up her face; part in disbelief and part in horror. Matt had forgotten to close his mouth; probably more out of tiredness than anything else. Both paused, before Sarah asked the inevitable question.
‘Are they ghosts or are they real?’.
‘Difficult to say’, Alex giggled.
‘But surely you know because you are a policeman’.
‘It’s very difficult to catch them’.
‘They definitely exist, but their motives are more of a mystery’.
‘Personally, I think it’s a ploy to scare people, and a cover up for the cheating husband, or vengeful brother, or neighbour who has finally had enough of all the antics next door’.
‘Who knows who they are?’, ‘Or what bones they have to pick?’ He said laughing.
Sarah and Matt looked at each other, and then they too saw the funny side.
Alex had told this tale before, so it seemed strange that he began thinking about it again. He knew that he would struggle to fall asleep with this ‘worm in his head’.
He reached for the bag of miraa by the side of his bed. As he chewed he began to convince himself that he should know what the jajouk were doing. Sarah had been amazed that he didn’t know.
Alex stopped pacing mid-step and sat heavily back down on his bed. There was too much racing around in his head. He needed to calm himself down before the morning shift at the checkpoint.