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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 12 - Trial By Deduction

The British High Commissioner gets more than he bargained for in a tennis match... The President is eager to know who tipped off the British that grain given by the West had been sold on to another African country... The BBC World Service reports that the country of Zungula is falling apart...

Michael Wood continues his vivid narrative of corruption in an imaginary African country - a disturbing story but an excellent read because of brilliant plotting and characterisation. To enjoy earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

Weeks had ticked by but the Vice President had not forgotten his suggestion that the Mackelsons should join him and Lucy at the Club for tennis one afternoon. He duly fulfilled his promise by organizing a match one weekend. Sandy had been wondering if the invitation would come. He had been eagerly awaiting a second encounter with the young filly who had made such an impression on him at the Queen’s Birthday Party. Had he read her signals correctly?

Once inside the grounds of the Club, the Mackelsons were surprised at its size and the variety of facilities on offer. A well kept golf course was the main prize for those with the inclination; there were also two squash courts one of which was glass backed, a sizeable swimming pool, and no less than six clay surface tennis courts. The bar was well appointed to view tennis, and being a Saturday afternoon, it was busy.

As arranged, the Mackelsons met up with their opponents in the bar for a preliminary rock shandy. Madeleine felt embarrassed. She realized that as a pair, she and her husband looked more like Laurel and Hardy. Compared to the magnificently trim Lucy, she felt like a walrus. Compared to the VP, Sandy still looked ridiculous in those Nadal-style cut-offs which he’d insisted were now perfectly fashionable. A court had been reserved. As the four walked on, they agreed that it would be better to mix.

“I am always quarreling with that wan if we are together,” the VP said lightly, pointing a finger at Lucy. “It is just like learning to drive. One should never teach one’s own wife, eh?”

The Mackelsons agreed with this wisdom and Madeleine was duly paired with the VP. It was obvious during the warm up that three of the four players were capable. Predictably, Sandy seemed out of his depth, especially after such a long lay off. With a limp wrist, he had hit several balls out of the court altogether, even before commencement of hostilities. A ball boy was sent to retrieve them. Soon, a number of spectators, eager for idle amusement, had gathered to see how the High Commissioner would fare once the match itself got underway.

Madeleine showed a competitive edge and crashed one heavy serve after another at her hapless husband, and used her bruising forehand to good effect. The VP urged her on, shouting “excellent wan” or “that is the shot”. There were roars of approval from the bar as well, word having got around that the British High Commissioner was being humiliated. “Look at his raquet!” one drunken observer yelled, displaying behaviour quite unsuited to that which was socially acceptable at Dombe Club. “Are you sure that doesn’t belong in a museum!” By now, even the waiters had stopped to join in the merriment, laughing like hyenas.

Oddly however, and against all expectation, Sandy began to get his eye in. Although he served like a beginner and foot faulted continuously (which the other players ignored to keep the game flowing), he began to counter Madeleine’s heavy strokes with some nimble intercepting volleys at the net, leaving Lucy to sprint along the baseline to parry any passing shots or overheads which escaped him.

Unconcerned by the jibes of those watching, it seemed he was determined to put on a show of unusual effort. Spectator mirth faded. Indeed, as the game progressed the crowd lost interest and turned back towards the bar. Taking due account of Lucy’s athleticism, she and Sandy made a good stab of it and a fairly even game ensured, with all four puffing away for the best part of forty minutes.

Eventually the heat and high humidity took its toll on all of them. Perspiring heavily, they agreed to retire for more liquid refreshment when the match was tied at a set apiece. The VP shook Madeleine’s hand warmly before congratulating his opponents. Lucy planted a kiss on each of Sandy’s cheeks. “By the way,” she said “I really like you in those pants.” He smiled and gingerly placed an arm around her waist as he guided her out of the court behind his wife and the Vice President. He hadn’t imagined her thigh being thrust hard against his own.

* * * * * *

BBC World Service Radio (Network Africa) 6.00am Dombe time; 20 June
“……from Southern African, there are renewed repots of Zungula in crisis. In an interview with a promeenent opposition party member, arrepotta was told there were three major cansans. First, while the cantry is facing its worst food shottage for more than a decade, the British Gavanment and others, have announced suspension of financial aid in response to GoZ’s alleged corrupt handling of grain reserves. Secondly, there have been further seriass incidents of tribal fighting in the north. It is repotted that the Umnaravi King is among the dead. Observers believe further escalation of fighting is inevitable. Also in the north, an outbreak of meningitis is estimated to have killed three hundred people so far. No emergency assistance has been mobilized by the donor community which operates more or less exclusively in the south. A spokesman for President Chilembe could not confam what was happening but verified action on the part of several donors to curtail aid. He accused them, and Britain in particular, of heavy handedness, arguing that the mother country was cutting the throats of Zungula’s children.”

* * * * * *

House of Commons, London. Parliamentary Questions (PQs) to be taken on 23 June
No.5. Dr Jenny Townsend (Winchester) to ask the Secretary of State for Overseas Development what assessment her Department has made of the impact of HIV/AIDS on agricultural production in Zungula?

No.12. Dr Jenny Townsend (Winchester) to ask the Secretary of State ........ what plans are in place to ensure that small farmers in Zungula have access to adequate seed and fertilizer in the forthcoming growing season?

No.17. Dr Jenny Townsend (Winchester) to ask the Secretary of State ....... how much food aid her Department is providing for Zungula in the current year and what proportion of this will reach Northern Region?

No.43. Dr Jenny Townsend (Winchester) to ask the Secretary of State ........ if she will increase development aid to Zungula in the light of the current famine in that country, and if she will make a statement?

Beauty Musajakawa stared in disbelief at the PQs received from her London office’s Parliamentary Unit. Her secretary had printed these and left them with a red “Immediate” label on her desk. Townsend had been one of the All Party Committee of MPs whom she had recently hosted. Beauty had reason to feel irritated. She had devoted scarce time briefing the visiting politicians both before and during the food security conference. Now the wretched woman had returned to London and posed foolish questions in Parliament. The MP had also used the term “famine” when this didn’t apply to the Zungula situation. Some of Townsend’s questions were close to the top of the list and would therefore require oral, rather than written replies. That meant extra work for Beauty’s team when they would have been more productively engaged helping to deal with the food crisis. They would need to prepare background briefing and “notes for possible supplementary Questions”, for there was no such thing as a front bench spokesperson being caught off guard by PQs, especially now that parliamentarians were in the full spotlight of television cameras. The whole thing was a charade.

* * * * * *

Although it was well after midnight, Sandy Mackelson could not sleep. Two things played on his mind, one pleasant, the other more worrying.

A couple of days after their game at Dombe Sports Club, Lucy had called. At first he imagined that she was attending to duty and simply phoning to thank him and Madeleine for a pleasant afternoon’s company – indeed she said as much. They talked about tennis a little. Lucy began to flatter him with a succession of remarks about how well he had played; how mobile he had been compared to her husband; how strong at the net. There was a clear suggestiveness in her tone.

Beyond middle age, Mackelson was distinctly out of touch when it came to testing the water with potentially loose women, but he managed to say, “Well Lucy, we might have lost rather heavily were it not for your superior movement about the court. You were magnificent. If you don’t mind my saying, you were both useful with the racquet and beautiful to watch.” Lucy needed no further invitation and began to lure him in further, like a fish to tasty bait.

“Do you mean I played beautifully, or that I looked beautiful?” she teased.

“Both my dear. I’m afraid Madeleine is just not up to your standard.”

Mackelson felt an immediate pang of guilt when he said it. His wife, he knew, wouldn’t have spoken about him like that. She had never let him down over the years and had always defended him if his back was against the wall. Neither had she been unfaithful. Yet he experienced a rush of blood in talking to this younger woman. She reminded him of Susie Braithwaite, his Caribbean lover from so long ago. He wanted to keep the innuendos alive. He wanted to believe that his philandering days were not yet at an end. Even if he was on the wrong side of fifty, he did not consider himself unhandsome.

“I promise I won’t tell her what you said,” Lucy giggled. “We’ll keep that just between ourselves. It’s nice that we like each other. I was thinking about you yesterday and wondered if we could find a way to spend some time together?”

The High Commissioner was amazed that her words immediately aroused him. He hadn’t had such a reaction in years. Now he was caught by her, hook, line and sinker. But he was suddenly conscious that his secretary might be listening in – his office door was wide open.

“I ………..”

This time he was truly stuck for words and Lucy thought she understood why. After all, she was the Vice President’s wife. She suddenly adopted a more formal tone.

“Well thank you again for joining us on Saturday. We enjoyed it so much. Oh, by the way High Commissioner, I meant to tell you I am having a little gathering at the Capital Hotel on Thursday night at 6 pm, to celebrate completion of my work on their reception area. It will be in the Mulanje Room. I hope you can make it. Bye for now.”

The phone went dead. Mackelson had thought of little else since. He poured over their conversation time and again in his head. Could a woman as attractive as that really want him, or was she trying to make a monkey out of him? Well, he thought, there could be no harm in attending her party. Madeleine would be very glad to be free of it if he told her the function was to be held at her least favourite venue.

Sandy’s more serious worry was Noah Bamidele. Over the last few weeks he had almost forgotten about the man. Since that dreadful business with Middleton, it seemed there had been so much to do. Noah hadn’t really been top of his list of priorities. Then a letter had been delivered to the High Commission, according to Stainbury by the very police sergeant whom he suspected of having something to do with Middleton’s transportation to Dedza. It was addressed to the High Commissioner personally and sealed in a dirty airmail envelope:

“Boss,
May God bless you. I am hoping that the Madame is well so and praying to God that you will know I am in this place and find in your heart how you can help me. I have been to the railway in Kintyre like you say many weeks ago and from there they arrest me for trespass and such. Apart from that I do nothing wrong Boss, honest to God. Boss, it was me who help the white man who come here to Dedza. I am sorry how he die.
I am praying again now for you to come.
Your servant
Noah Bamidele”

The fat sergeant would obviously have read the letter. What motive might he have had, first to give Noah pen and paper, which wouldn’t have been freely available in the Dedza hell-hole, and then to smuggle the note out of the prison and deliver it?

Once his relatives had given the necessary permission, Middleton’s post-mortem had confirmed Dr Wharton’s initial assessment that death had been the result of battery, causing a huge blood clot and subsequently fatal stroke. The examination also confirmed that the victim had been subjected to sexual assault of such a violent nature, that he suffered severe internal rupturing and bleeding. His blood revealed infection with gonorrhea. It had been too early to conclude that HIV had been transmitted.

Mackelson’s mind raced. Perhaps the sergeant had had orders to treat the Briton harshly? After all, Chitambo had made it perfectly clear Middleton had been guilty of the crime with which he had been charged. Maybe Stainbury was right; the policeman had been involved in some way but didn’t want to be implicated in the serious matter of Middleton’s death?

As Sandy lay next to Madeleine, listening to her subdued snoring, he realized that the “errand” he had sent Noah on weeks before, must have been the reason for the Nigerian’s imprisonment. What should he do? On the one hand, he hadn’t asked Noah Bamidele to do anything illegal. The trader must have overstepped the mark somehow, to have ended up in the hands of the law. On the other, Sandy had shown Noah’s pleading letter to Madeleine and she had made it perfectly clear that it was her husband who was mainly responsible for Noah’s incarceration. She insisted that he do something to help the man. Deep down the High Commissioner knew his wife was right. His instruction to get hold of the train nameplates would have been interpreted with an “at any cost” suffix. There would have been risk attached to the mission. He had exposed the trader to this. Sandy sensed that his wife would continue to harp on about the matter until he had found a way of getting Noah out of jail.

* * * * * *

Sam Phiri had taken Beauty Musajakawa’s advice. For the last few weeks he had tried to behave as if he was outraged by donor suspension of budget support. In reality he dreaded commencement of their forensic audit, investigating the sale of grain to the Kenyans. However, he felt he had put on quite a convincing show when Matthews Chihana had once again summoned him to that top floor office, a part of the building he now stepped into with foreboding.

“Ah Phiri, come and sit. Some time has passed since your business transaction with those Kikuyu. Perhaps you thought I had let something escape me?”

“I am not sure I am understanding you Sah.”

Sam feared that his boss had somehow now found out about the information he had passed to the British. Chihana looked at Sam, serious faced but the junior man held his nerve. His boss reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a brown packet.

“Your performance bonus Phiri, as promised. Go ahead. Open it.”

Sam had completely forgotten about Chihana’s offer of a reward if he succeeded with the grain sale within the narrow timeframe given. Chihana was now watching closely, looking for any flicker of reaction other than gratitude.

However much Sam was offended by being sucked in to the dirty scheme which involved the President, Tembo and Chihana together, he felt he would have to play along if suspicion was not to fall on him. He opened the packet and pulled out a wad of notes. Not Kwacha but American dollars, in one hundred denominations. There must have been about $2,000 in his hand.

“I am sure you deserve every cent of that Phiri. After all, you did only what the President asked, and efficiently too.”

“Thank you Sah. This money will help for when the baby is coming.”

“Exactly Phiri. The happy occasion must be quite soon now, I suppose?”

“Well no. We still have a few months.”

“Anyway. Enjoy.”

Chihana turned back to the paperwork on his desk, making it clear that Sam could now take his leave. However he had one more thing to say as Sam stood up. “By the way Phiri. How do you think the donors learned of the Kenya sale?” Sam had been half expecting the question and was prepared.

“I have been wondering the same thing also Sah. They didn’t look too happy at the conference when I told them about our limited reserves. Fernandez was disbelieving of me when I said that we had to dispose of some grains which were not fit for human consumptions.”

“Well Phiri, today’s papers are reporting that in spite of the suspension of financial aid, which incidentally is Tembo’s problem, not ours, the Americans and the British will be flying and then shipping in enough food relief to tide us over until next year’s harvest. As I predicted a few weeks ago, they are not prepared to let us suffer. Those British. They have a soft centre in spite of all their hard talk.”

“You are right Sah.”

Sam walked down the stairs from the top floor, with the money tucked into his jacket pocket. What could an honest man do with it? For the time being, he felt it best to lock it away in his office safe. There would be no point telling Patience about it. She would only fritter it away. With her increasingly lavish collection of clothes, and sophisticated make up, he felt he hardly recognized her these days.

* * * * * *

Joe Tembo’s metallic blue Jaguar car was held up at the palace gates only momentarily. Long enough for the soldiers on duty to check that it was him inside the vehicle, for he was already the President’s most frequent visitor. The guards offered one of those unnatural looking African salutes, over-stiff and jerky, the chest swelled in exaggerated fashion, with the saluting hand ending up too high on the forehead.

The car sped up to the imposing building just as the builders were removing their last cart load of scaffolding, final alterations to what was to be the ballroom again, now complete. Tembo sighed. Cabinet had still not identified a suitable new place for Parliament to meet. The Minister moved inside the palace and was greeted by a sombre Chief of Staff who advised that President Chilembe was waiting for him on the first floor veranda. Tembo admired the lavish surroundings as he mounted the grand stairway. One day soon he thought, I will occupy these premises. But he would bide his time. He still had to build all the political alliances he needed. The President was standing at one of the doors to the veranda, his head cocked at any unusual angle.

“Do you hear that Joe?” he asked without preliminaries. Tembo wasn’t sure what his boss had been referring to.

“What is it that you are hearing Sir?”

“There? It is voices coming from somewhere. Two people I think. They are disturbing me. I have asked the palace staff to search for them, but they cannot find where they are hiding. They needn’t think they will fool me for I am too smart for that. WHEN WE FIND YOU, LOOK OUT!” Chilembe suddenly roared, startling the Minister of Finance with the ferocity of the outburst.

“I am sorry Joe,” the President continued, “but soon they are going to pay.” For a moment or two there was an uncomfortable silence as Elliot Joseph Chilembe pulled himself together and gathered his thoughts. Then, as if someone had turned on a light switch, he was his usual self, sharp and alert.

“How far have the donors got with their investigations on the Kenya business?”

“Their auditors are already at work Sir, and have also asked my permission to examine government revenue and expenditure flows over the last six months. I have agreed, as to deny them would only heighten their suspicions. The auditors won’t finish for at least another month. Then they will have to prepare their report. We are bound to face some turbulence from the British and others withholding financial aid. However we’ll get through it if we maintain the line that we had to dispose of unfit grain last year, and that unfortunately our records are in disarray.”

“We had better Joe. Or you will be returning the $150,000 I gave you for helping me with the sale. What alerted the British in the first place?”

“On that there is still some uncertainty Mr President. Initially, I had my suspicions about the man Phiri whom we instructed to handle the sale. But in the final analysis, I am thinking he would not have had the courage to question your authority, or even mine.”

“You aren’t protecting the man because you are fooling with his wife I suppose?”

“Ehhh. So you know about that?” the Minister responded, surprised.

“You are hardly discrete about it Joe. It’s a wonder Phiri himself hasn’t suspected anything. Be that as it may, if he is not our traitor, who is?”

“I have been thinking hard on that one Mr President. Matthews Chihana is an ambitious man and he is greedy also. Maybe he thought he could take your $20,000 and profit by telling the British about the Kenya deal. You know how the British are. Always rewarding African fellows whom they think are trustworthy, maybe with a job at the World Bank or some such.”

“So, that is his game. Thank you Joe. I will handle it. There is one other thing,” the President continued. “I am telling you in confidence so please don’t speak of it to anyone else. It is my kid brother. He died yesterday morning. I think you knew he was unwell. He had tuberculosis – a terrible thing. It will be a private family funeral. I will be going back to my village for a few days, leaving things in the hands of the VP.”

“I am sorry to hear of your sad loss Sir. Please convey my sympathies to your family members.” Joe Tembo knew perfectly well that it had been the Edze which had taken another life.

“I will Joe. I will. And thank you my friend. On your way out will you tell the Chief of Staff to come. I want those, what would you call them, those “stowaways” found before I get back.”


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