As the weather cools and the nights become shorter for us here in the northern hemisphere it is nice to be transported to Kenya with another chapter of J S Fortuna's Night Runners.
We are leaping forward to chapter 27 where Alex, a border town policeman, closes in on the truth behind the mysterious night runner John Wenga.
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Alex followed Mrs Ademo out of the Sportsview Hotel. She had just come off her night shift and was heading towards her car which was parked up on the verge of the main road. He smiled as he passed her; it was impossible to remain behind someone that walked that slowly. He turned and went to buy a mandazi and a cup of sweet milky tea. If he timed it well, he could finish his mandazi before she had finished getting vegetables from Julie’s stall.
Alex stood by the mandazi stall making himself as conspicuous as possible. He took two huge bites out of the first mandazi before glugging down his tea and demolishing the next one. He had parked his car just behind the stalls, so he could quickly slip into it, and tail Mrs Ademo as she drove home. Alex waited. She was taking longer than he had thought she would. From his vantage point he could see her gossiping with a lady selling pineapples.
Finally, she tipped her head back in laughter, and put her hand on the lady’s arm. She was about to say goodbye. Alex slipped into his car. He slowly turned the engine on and reached over to tidy the glove compartment. Mrs Ademo drove as slowly as she walked. Twice, Alex thumped the dashboard in frustration. ‘Come on!’ he hissed through his teeth.
To his surprise, Mrs Ademo headed out of town towards Busia. She took a left fork onto to the trunk road. It was easy to follow her discreetly by ducking behind lumbering trucks heading for the border. Some of the trucks were so heavily-laden that it was difficult to see either side of them, and almost impossible to see Mrs Ademo’s car on the road ahead. Alex drove on; at times getting very close to the truck in front, and then gently swerving either side of it to make sure he was still heading the right way.
Alex followed Mrs Ademo to the outskirts of Busia. Then without warning she turned off into the compound of a hotel. Alex let a couple of trucks thunder past him before pulling up next to a roadside duka. It was edging towards mid-morning and the sun had started to make its presence felt. Alex wiped little beads of sweat from the rim of his sunglasses and gulped down an ice-cold soda. He got back into the car and waited; retraced her journey in his head. To his relief, when Alex looked over the road he saw that Mrs Ademo’s car was still in the hotel compound. Alex drove straight past it to the back of the hotel. As he went past the main entrance, he saw a shabby welcome sign for the Busia Villas Hotel.
It didn’t look much like a hotel. There was a dusty open compound with mock African mud huts around the edge. In the middle was a large traditional hut with open sides. Small flowering shrubs had been planted all the way around the edges of the small huts, and along the paths, which had been delineated by very low wire fences. A gardener was pouring water over the shrubs, but it looked as if some were too dried out to save. Alex approached the gardener and asked where he could book a room for the night. The gardener directed him towards the reception without even lifting his gaze.
Alex turned towards the reception but stopped to buy a little time. He gave the gardener a few coins in exchange for a cigarette and sat smoking inside the central hut. The air was cooler in there. Several chambermaids were clearing tables from a party the night before.
Alex wondered towards the reception. As he pushed the reception door open he was greeted by a large 1980s advertisements for condoms. The reception desk was covered in glossy holiday brochures which had been heavily thumbed. Alex lent against them and waited. The receptionist was certainly in no hurry to serve him.
He was eventually shown to the shabbiest hut in a corner of the compound. It was clear that the hotel had an army of regulars and could afford to dispense with good service. He begrudgingly paid for a single night.
Alex tried to lay down to sleep later that night, but his bed was narrow and uncomfortable. The curtains were thin and white, letting in all the lights and sounds in from outside. He lay on top of the bed wondering whether the sheets had been washed and staring up at the reflection of the light outside on the mirror above the sink. The whole room was bathed in pale blue light, and the floor shined softly where it had been cleaned.
Alex listened. People were going in and out of different huts all night. Through the curtains, he could make out the shadows of half-dressed men wondering around the compound chatting incessantly into their mobile phones. Occasionally, there was a burst of conversation, or the shriek of women’s laughter.
Alex tossed and turned under the thin bedsheet. His skin was hot and sticky. He sat up for a moment. Then pulled on his clothes to go and see if the air was fresher outside. It wasn’t much; the smell of diesel fumes lingered around the huts. As he walked through the compound towards the road he could see trucks passing by. The traffic was still in full swing. He noticed a small blue light illuminating the reception area. He pressed his head to the window and could see that it was quite busy. Alex pushed passed some men towards the desk to ask for a cigarette. He was about to pull out his wallet when a man next to him put a cigarette into his hand. As the stranger retracted his palm the large gold rings on his fingers brushed Alex’s wrist.
The man did not smile, or look up, but without hesitation pulled a gold zippo lighter from his pocket. Alex thought he was probably Congolese.
Alex walked passed the reception and sat on a dark bench in the compound smoking the cigarette. It felt satisfying and real. He smiled to himself as he realised that it would keep him awake for a while. He sat forward on the bench gently rubbing the back of his neck as he looked at his boots. His hair was getting long. He hadn’t been to his usual kinyozi for a while; he had wanted to avoid the gossip and the rumours about him. He would have to find another one across town. It would be easily as they were everywhere. Farmers’ sons had set themselves up as kinyozis when their crops had failed. It was simple enough to build a shack out of discarded wood, paint a sign and buy some clippers. They set themselves up next to the other dukas to borrow their electricity. Wires were stripped naked and grafted onto the live wires. If you looked up, you could see a series of them hanging precariously above the shacks like washing lines. Alex had seen sparks fly, and huts burnt down, but they were quickly replaced.
Alex looked up from his boots. He heard a familiar voice. Mrs Ademo was stood in the shadows outside the back door of the reception screeching into her phone. Alex listened carefully.
‘5 minutes’, ‘Has Ida got it under control?’.
‘Pull your car up on the road’, ‘The car park is too busy’.
Alex remained motionless with his head down until he heard Mrs Ademo bang the back door of the reception shut. He got up slowly and moved towards the entrance of the compound; frantically looking for somewhere he could observe the meeting. A soda truck was parked just before the entrance, and the driver was pissing up against a jacaranda bush. Alex carefully approached the truck and stood with his back against the side of it. The driver returned, closed his door loudly, and settled down to sleep in the cab.
Alex waited. A small car appeared from behind a line of noisy trucks and parked the other side of the soda truck. Alex peered around the side of the truck. Mrs Maku eased herself out of the driver’s seat and slammed the car door loudly. A moment later, Mrs Ademo approached.
Mrs Maku greeted Mrs Ademo with the barest regard.
‘She’ll be coming in 10 minutes once she has set John out’.
‘What is the plan?’ Mrs Ademo looked over to Mrs Maku.
‘Now that the last consignment has gone to Mombasa we can receive another’.
‘How many?’ Mrs Ademo’s voice sounded anxious.
‘Around fifteen’, ‘But we must change the arrangements for this one’.
‘The Pastor is working on a place’.
‘John will assist him and run between’.
Alex could not really see Mrs Ademo’s face, but he sensed her anxiety. She hesitated.
‘Is it safe?’
‘What do you mean?’
Mrs Maku was as grumpy as ever.
‘People are prying’, ‘They are prying into it’.
‘Even the police’.
‘That has been dealt with for now’.
Another car pulled up beside Mrs Maku’s car. Alex lowered his eyes against the dazzling headlights, but he was temporarily blinded by them. As the headlights were switched off, he edged closer to the side of the truck, and poked his head out. He took a sharp intake of breath. John Wenga’s mother awkwardly pulled herself up out of the driver’s seat and hobbled towards the other women. ‘John Wenga’, Alex whispered to himself. The old woman approached and grasped the arms of the other two with a claw-like grip to steady herself. She stood next to them as straight as her bent back would allow. Her voice was low and hissing. Alex struggled to make out what she was saying until she began to raise her voice.
‘This must be his last’.
‘He’s very unwell now’, ‘I can’t control him like I did’.
‘His mind has been broken’.
‘What are you giving him?’ Mrs Maku looked over towards the old lady.
‘The same ones’, ‘but he has had too much of it, and now he is unbalanced’.
‘He can barely remember my instructions’.
‘He has stopped sleeping and eating’.
‘Is it side effects?’ Mrs Ademo interjected.
‘No, no!’, the old lady became angry.
‘I have told you, in the right dosage it works perfectly’.
‘Leave these things to me!’ the old lady bellowed.
‘What will we do now Sam is no longer useful to us?’.
Mrs Ademo turned towards the old lady and glared at her.
‘We will recruit’.
‘Some of the others are still useful to us’, the old lady’s voice had returned to a low hiss.