Hell's Gate by Richard Crompton is the 2nd book in the Detective Mollel series who's just been banished from to the outskirts of Kenya (available June 2, 2015).
Detective Mollel, the Maasai warrior-turned-detective, has been banished from Nairobi, Kenya's bustling metropolis, to a small, fly-blown town on the edge of a national park. His career, he thinks, has taken a nosedive. His colleagues on the police force are a close-knit group and they have not taken kindly to a stranger in their midst. Mollel suspects they are guilty of the extortion and bribery that plague the force. But when the body of a flower worker turns up in the local lake, he begins to wonder if they might be involved in something even more disturbing. For all is not as it seems in Hell's Gate. Amid rumors of a local death squad, disappearances, and blackmail, Mollel is forced not only to confront his Maasai heritage but also to ask himself where justice truly lies. In upholding the law, is he doing what is right?
THEY HAVE TAKEN THE SKY AND BOUND IT
He is this: a pair of flip-flops, a pair of baggy shorts. A matching tunic in black-and-white stripes. In his arms he carries a grubby foam mattress—a half mattress, cut down its longest axis, no wider than his shoulder blades. A scratchy woolen blanket is folded on top. In the pocket of his tunic sits a little yellow card that bears, in handwritten letters, his name, his number, his crime.
He is this, and nothing more. Just another one of the four thousand or so inmates of the place. He looks like them. He even walks like them—a shallow, defeated shuffle, thanks to the oversize flip-flops.
He looks like them, but he is not one of them. They know it, too: the very first group he walks past stare at him with seven pairs of sullen, hostile eyes.
—Policeman! one of them hisses.
Many times he has entered prison. Many times he has smelled that scent of stale, confined humanity; has felt the air, thick with the heat of hundreds of bodies, burn the back of his throat.
Every time, panic threatens to rise within him. Every time, he shudders to suppress it. Reminds himself that unlike these others, he gets to walk out.
But not this time.
The guard behind him chuckles.
—You’re not going to find many friends in here, Maasai. You’d better learn to sleep with your eyes open.
—Look out! comes a voice. And two white-clad prisoners thunder past bearing a huge, steaming aluminum cauldron of gray mush dotted with pink, fleshy beans.
The cooks deposit the cauldron with a clatter in the middle of the courtyard. On that signal the disparate clusters of men morph into a line, plastic plates and spoons in hand.
—You can get yours later, the guard instructs him. First to your cell.
* * *
They approach an ash-block wall with a narrow doorway in it. Above the doorway is painted the word REMAND. With a jangle of keys the barred gate is opened and they pass through. Beyond, a second gate. The gates never seem to stop. This place is gate after gate, door after door, each of them opened and locked in turn. They step inside. The vinegary smell of the food had been bad, but the ripe, choking stench of the cellblock immediately banishes it from memory. It is the smell of sweat, of urine, of shit, of humanity. They walk past open cells, catching a glimpse at each doorway of dark interiors, mattresses scattered on concrete floors. Meager possessions tied in ragged bags to the bars of the high, narrow windows through which gray light trickles in.
Now he is within the very heart of the jail, and the denizens look up at him from their cots as he passes. Lassitude prevents most of them from stirring, but emotion flickers in their eyes. Amusement. Anger. Hatred. Pity.
A curious face rolls out and leers as he passes another door: a hand makes a slashing gesture across the throat.
The guard lets out a short, hard laugh, and a baton in Mollel’s ribs keeps him shuffling forward. His cracked flip-flops are hard to walk in, and he wishes he could kick them off. But bare feet, like shoes, are forbidden here. A simple precaution: you can’t run in flip-flops. And needle-sharp granite gravel covers the ground all around these walls.
A barked order to stop. Mollel turns to face a cell door that is hanging open before him. —Welcome to your new home, says the guard.
He counts six half mattresses on the floor. Alongside a plastic tub crusted with flies, there is space for one more.
—New arrivals sleep next to the slops, says the guard, and he walks off jangling his keys.
Mollel pushes the tub as far as he can with his foot and rolls out his mattress in the space that remains. Something stirs at the other side of the cell. What he had taken for a heap of blankets turns out to be the skeletal figure of a man. He can barely raise his head, but his eyes, half open, roll in the direction of the newcomer.
—I know who you are, says the sick man. We all do. We heard you were coming.
His eyes now adjusting to the gloom, Mollel can see that the man’s ears are looped just like his own.
—Supai. Mollel greets him in Maa. The man does not reply. —What’s wrong with you? says Mollel. Have you seen a doctor?
—There’s no mganga can cure me, replies the man. Don’t you know this is the fate of all Maasai in prison?
It is said that a Maasai never lasts more than three months inside. In the old days, it was believed they simply died. When the English sat in judgment, they wouldn’t even put a Maasai behind bars for anything less than murder. Imprisonment was a death sentence to a people who believed that the whole world was their home.
Over the years, Mollel has seen plenty of Maasai serve out their time. He’s even put a few of them there himself. They didn’t die. But they may as well have. After a few weeks they became apathetic, listless. Clouds descended upon their eyes and an ashen pallor upon their skin. The elegant Maasai frame, unaccustomed to lying on a cot for twenty hours each day, became hunched and crabbed. These broken figures seldom spoke and never offered resistance. Their spirit was gone.
—How long have you been here?
—Two years, three years.
—On remand? asks Mollel. He knows that the backlog of cases is huge, but even so, he is shocked. —Let me talk to the guards. Let me find you a doctor, a lawyer. I might be able to help.
—You just look after yourself, Ole Mollel, replies the man. No one’s going to want your help in here.
The guard returns with a greasy plastic plate and spoon, which he thrusts into Mollel’s hand.
—Go get your food before it’s all gone, he says.
* * *
Back in the courtyard, Mollel casts his eyes around the space. Prisoners stand in groups or sit on the ground, grazing like zebras from their bowls of slop. Around and among them prowl the guards, in their khaki uniforms, berets, and shoulder braids, twirling their batons nonchalantly.
High walls run all around, dotted here and there with blank, gated doors. Atop the walls, the sky is bound with rusting curls of barbed wire.
A splash of warm liquid hits him in the face. The spit, full of chewed beans, slides down his cheek and he shakes his head to keep it from his mouth.
Laughter greets the bull’s-eye.
—How’d you like that, policeman?
He casts his eyes down, but he cannot escape the mocking hostility as he takes his plate over to the cauldron, which is no longer steaming, in the middle of the yard.
He senses all eyes on him as he approaches the tin cooking pot. There is nothing left. Two or three beans are smeared across the sides; otherwise all has been devoured.
As he absorbs this, the laughter returns. First a sneer, then a catcall, then a tumultuous, clamorous cackling. What started haphazardly becomes rhythmic, vibrating: the prisoners are now stamping their feet in unison.
The guards do nothing for a minute. They are enjoying this, it seems. Then, suddenly, they’ve had enough. The batons are out, and the mob calms down. The prisoners are ordered back to their cells.
Mollel is held back, but only long enough for the others to reach their cells. There is no favoritism for him: the guards just don’t want a fight in the corridors.
When Mollel gets to his cell, the dying Maasai is no longer the sole occupant. A chorus of groans greets him.
—Why do we have to have him? protests one voice.
—You get him, Oweno, because you’ve had floor space for another mattress ever since your cellmate hanged himself. While the other six of you were supposedly sleeping.
Oweno smiles. —We’re heavy sleepers here. Aren’t we, lads?
The man rises up, grabbing the plastic pot from its place on the ground and thrusting it into Mollel’s hands. The smell hits him in the face. A half inch of viscous piss sloshes at the bottom.
—Better get used to it, says Oweno. You’re on slop duty.
—Behave yourselves, boys, warns the guard. This one isn’t a mule thief from Kericho. If anything happens to him, people are going to ask questions.
—It’s not us you need to worry about, replies Oweno. We’re all big supporters of the polisi, here.
Another guard comes and murmurs something to the first.
The pair of them look at Mollel with interest.
—Well, well, Maasai. You’re honored. The boss wants to see you.
—The governor? Mollel asks.
Laughter rings out around the cell. Even the guards snigger.
* * *
They lead him past the gate to the administration block and onward to the dispensary. There, one of the guards respectfully knocks on the door.
It is opened by a tall man with a pleasant, plump face. Boyish eyes that turn up at the corners. He looks as innocent as a child. Which is totally at odds with what Mollel knows of this man, and of what he does.
He is Mdosi. This current stretch in prison has done nothing to diminish his power or influence. He stands aside to invite Mollel in, dismisses the guards with a nod, and closes the door.
The dispensary is a single room that has evidently been converted into Mdosi’s private residence. Curtains hang at the window. A rug is on the freshly painted concrete floor next to the unavoidable pisspot. A calendar showing scenes of a snowcapped Mount Kenya hangs on the wall. A small television on a stool flickers silently. And, perhaps most enviable of all, there is a bed. A proper full-size bed, on legs, with the twisted bridal veil of a mosquito net hanging from a hook on the ceiling above it.
Mdosi’s eyes dance with amusement.
—Have you anything to tell me, Maasai?
—About why my men keep disappearing. About what is happening to them. They’re not just retiring from the business, putting their feet up. They’re being killed. And I want to know who’s doing it.
—I’ve got nothing to tell you, Mollel says.
Mdosi smiles. Slowly, carefully, he removes one of his flip-flops. It has a line scored across the sole. Deftly, he cracks it in half.
Next he crosses to the pisspot. He dips his fingers into the liquid, gingerly moves them around, searching for what the eye would miss, then pulls from it a four-inch shard of glass. He sticks the shard into the heel of the broken flip-flop, which Mollel sees has a notch in it for just that purpose. Mdosi handles the shard almost lovingly, watching it gleam in the low light.
—This, Mdosi says to Mollel, is for you.
* * *
It must have been the sound of the chair falling to the floor that made the guard open the door. Mdosi’s shard is in Mollel’s hand.
Blood drips from it.
The guard looks down at the body of Mdosi, lying in a rapidly growing pool of blood on the concrete floor, then back at Mollel. Mollel opens his hand and lets the shard fall to the ground, where it shatters. Finally, the guard manages to speak.
—You’ve done it, you crazy bastard, he cries. You’ve killed him!
ONE WEEK PREVIOUSLY
—We might as well get a few things straight, says the young man, waving a bony finger in his face. Just because you used to be a sergeant doesn’t mean you outrank me now. We’re both detective constables, and since this is my patch, I have seniority. Got it?
—Got it, says Mollel.
As ever, he has to resist the temptation to tweak Shadrack Kitui’s somewhat pointy nose. How old is this pup? Twenty-four, twenty-five? That makes him closer in age to Mollel’s own son—now a rapidly growing twelve-year-old—than to Mollel himself. If Adam should ever grow up to be like this … thinks Mollel, and then shakes the thought from his mind. Adam has more decency and common sense right now than this upstart. And he’s yet to hit puberty.
—Good, says Shadrack. We don’t need any Nairobi rejects stepping on our toes down here. We do things our own way in Hell.
* * *
It must have been Otieno’s idea of a joke. Too many offended egos back at headquarters; too many influential people unhappy with him in Nairobi. And yet, with his record, he was almost impossible to dismiss.
Mollel had gained an awkward reputation for solving crimes. As his boss had so elegantly put it, —I don’t need to know which dog keeps shitting on my doorstep, Mollel. I just need it cleared up. The superintendent had held his face in his huge hands and kneaded his thumbs into his forehead when saying this. Mollel had not expected plaudits—he’d solved the case of a murdered prostitute but managed to outrage some of the most powerful people in the city along the way—although a word of thanks would not have gone amiss.
But it was a time of death. They were still tallying up the figures. Some speculated as to whether they would ever truly know how many had died. A lynching here, a panga attack there. Whole families, whole communities, facing the fallout of a stolen election. Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin. Tribe against tribe, neighbor against neighbor. What was one dead poko amid all this carnage?
—You’re a good detective, Mollel, Otieno had sighed. You believe in the law. But Nairobi doesn’t need the law right now. It needs order. And I need you, Mollel, to be somewhere else. Somewhere far from here.
So Otieno had sent Mollel to Hell.
In fact, the tiny township that had grown up along the thin strip of land between Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park officially languished under the much less dramatic name of Maili Ishirini—signifying nothing more than the fact that it is twenty miles from the nearest administrative center, Naivasha town. But in common parlance, the dusty, flyblown settlement had long since taken on the name of the national park whose high wire fence it bordered. Hell’s Gate—the park—was a place renowned for its beauty and the deep gorge that gave the park its name. Hell—the town—was not. The police post, originally intended as little more than a checkpoint for traffic, had struggled to keep up with the demands of a surge of newcomers. In recent years, as the flower farms clustered around the lake had blossomed, those employed in the grueling task of picking the flowers within their polyethylene tunnels—and those in search of easier pickings outside—had built an ever-expanding informal settlement of cinder-block and tin-shack structures. So much so that Hell, today, has become home to a couple of thousand people, half a dozen sleazy bars and barbecue joints, a similar number of churches, a handful of shops, a twice-weekly flea market, one crumbling police post, and four policemen.
Five policemen, Mollel corrects himself. He’s one of them now. And Shadrack—however irritating—is his colleague. He has a job to do.
They stand before one of the polyethylene arcs right now. It describes a perfect semicircle, at its peak about twice the height of a man. In the center, a double doorway of black rubber, with a small, streaked window in each panel. A sign shouts its ONYO—WARNING—in Swahili and English: DANGER. PESTICIDES IN USE. NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY.
—What are we supposed to do? asks Shadrack.
—I don’t know. You’re in charge.
—We should go in. We haven’t got all day.
—After you, says Mollel.
Shadrack looks nervously at the sign. —Maybe we should wait for someone.
At that moment they hear the word: —Supai.
The speaker is a warrior. He has come up behind them, silent in his tire-tread sandals. His anklets and bangles have none of the small steel disks that villagers love for the jangle they make: he needs no sound to betray his movement. Lean legs rise into his red-checkered shuka, bound tightly at the waist by a leather belt decorated with cowrie shells. A long, straight dagger hangs sheathed on one hip, a polished rungu, or club, on the other. Between the two, clipped to the belt, is a cell phone. His arms, wiry but muscular, bear copper bands across the biceps. His neck is adorned with a white, tight-fitting beadwork collar. His hair, shaved to the skin at the temples, falls behind him in tightly bound dreadlocks meticulously dyed with henna.
He is magnificent.
—Ipa, replies Mollel: the correct response to a greeting in Maa.
This had been who he was once. A warrior. He keenly remembers the sense of pride that used to swell in his chest every time he presented himself in his full splendor. This warrior must be about the same age as Shadrack, but there could hardly be more difference between the two. Shadrack, with his stooped shoulders, baggy, shapeless clothing, and cynical, resentful attitude. The warrior, eyeing them with relaxed self-confidence. Mollel even has the fleeting thought that he’d be proud to see Adam grow up like that—before dismissing it as ridiculous. The last wish of the boy’s mother had been that he’d be raised in the modern fashion, and Mollel had spent the last twelve years fulfilling it. Adam hardly spoke a word of Maa. Repulsive as the thought was, he was more likely to be a Shadrack than a warrior. And what of it? Mollel had turned his back on that life himself. He could hardly regret the loss of it for his son.
The thoughts of Adam force him to focus on what is around him, to let the immediate present take precedence. After all, there is nothing he can do about the fact that his son is far away in Nairobi: the job demands it. And the boy is in good hands with his grandmother. Yet a pang remains, and Mollel resolves to call him later.
The warrior sees Mollel glancing around the exterior of the greenhouses, taking in the scene. He gives a half nod, which tips his head back and his chin up rather than down.
—Welcome home, says the warrior.
Shadrack looks at Mollel with suspicion.
—You know each other?
By way of explanation, Mollel raises his right hand to his ear and taps his lobe. It hangs, looped and low, stretched, just like those of the warrior. The only difference is that two brass earrings glimmer from the warrior’s lobes, whereas Mollel’s are unadorned.
—This land is home to all Maasai, says the warrior, wherever they may be from. When my clan, the Il-Mutekoni, arrived here generations ago, they said the Maasai need wander no farther. They named the lake Naivasha: that-which-glitters.
—A lot of good it did you, replies Shadrack. Look at your land now! Sliced up, fenced off. We can’t even see that precious lake of yours for all the flower farms in the way. And what have you Maasai got to show for it? You’re the best-dressed security guards in town.
Mollel, in his time, has heard enough jibes against the Maasai to ignore the young man’s scoffing tone. He has come to expect such barbs, especially from his Kikuyu colleagues. He can’t help wondering whether there isn’t a note of envy underneath it all, somewhere. After all, the Maasai may have lost their land, but the Kikuyu, so eager to wear suits and ties and lace-up shoes, have lost their culture.
The warrior’s fingers twitch on his rungu. Hastily, Mollel puts out his hand, and the warrior makes a fist. Their knuckles touch in greeting.
—Mollel, says Mollel.
—Tonkei, replies the warrior. You’re Il-Molelian?
—I was. As you can see, my clan is Il-Polisi these days.
The warrior laughs.
—I’m Detective Kitui, butts in Shadrack. I’m in charge here. We got a call about some kind of disturbance?
The warrior gives his head-up nod. —Come with me.
—What about the poison? asks Shadrack nervously.
—The pesticide? It’s harmless. We just put that up to stop people from bothering the pickers. He holds open one of the doors for the policemen to walk through.
Mollel’s immediate reaction on setting foot inside the polytunnel is to flinch: all his senses rebel at once in reaction to the strange new environment. The heat causes his skin to prickle instantly with sweat. The sound of the three men’s footsteps on the gravel path is deadened by the air, so heavy with the sickly sweet perfume—a perfume that he could smell breathing in and taste breathing out. Almost as overwhelming is the intensity of color: block upon block of reds, here ember red, there sunset red, farther on, bloodred, further still, wine red.
Roses. Each one a spiral, a vortex. Each one unique—and identical to the hundreds, thousands growing alongside it. All the same height, all the same shape, a million teardrops furled.
Women move among the flowers, baskets on their backs, like strange grazing animals. Their arms are a blur of movement, selecting blooms with unhesitating precision, slicing them with a curved blade in one hand and tossing them into the basket with the other. Mollel has no idea whether they are picking perfect specimens or removing flawed ones: they are too distant and the action is too swift for him to tell. But he suspects he would not know the difference anyway. Cut flowers have always been a mystery to him, and he remembers marveling at seeing them sold by the roadside the first time he came to Nairobi. They seemed so pointless: something alien and impractical. One of the many madnesses that infected non-Maasai, such as hunting for sport, keeping a pet, or worshipping in a church.
As though reading his thoughts, the warrior says to him, —They have taken the sky and bound it.
—What? barks Shadrack. To his evident annoyance, the warrior continues talking to Mollel as though the younger policeman were not even there.
—You know the old saying? Of course you do.
—They fenced our land with wire … begins Mollel, dragging the words with some difficulty into his mind. It is something his mother used to incant.
—So we grazed our herds in the scrub. They walled our lakes with stone …
—So we watered our cattle in the streams.
—And when they dammed the streams, we said: they can never take the sky.
The warrior says this with a flourish of his outstretched arm, which reaches up and follows the arc of the roof above them. The plastic sheeting is opaque, bright, white. The rays of the sun are diffused, scattered, the very shadows thwarted in this even, flat light.
—But they did it, says the warrior. They have taken our sky and bound it.
—You Maasai talk some nonsense, says Shadrack.
The warrior smiles and shares a look with Mollel, which he interprets as What can you expect from a Kikuyu?
There is something about the young moran’s way of speaking and his way of holding himself that reminds Mollel of Lendeva.
* * *
His brother, Lendeva. He had the same posture, as straight as a spear planted in the earth, and the same implacable self-assurance. Mollel always rued that self-assurance. It was supposed to be the other way around: the elder brother was supposed to be the one who taught the younger, guided him, formed him. But Lendeva always gave the impression of having arrived in the world fully formed, like Ntemelua, the trickster of Maasai legend, who stunned his parents by possessing, as a newborn, the full faculty of speech.
By contrast, it was Mollel whose path in the world seemed studded with the jagged rocks of self-doubt. There was nothing Mollel could teach Lendeva. The younger boy made that perfectly clear by going out and finding teachers of his own.
Among those teachers had been the Samburu, who came one dry season and camped on the outskirts of the manyatta where Mollel, Lendeva, and their mother lived with a handful of other families. The villagers were not happy about the new arrivals—particularly the camels they drove instead of the more familiar rangy, high-hipped cattle. Unlike cattle, these tall, ugly creatures were not docile or biddable, looking down their haughty noses at the Maasai, who, reluctantly obeying the demands of hospitality, gave over space in their thorn-branch boma for nighttime protection against lions. Sometimes the beasts’ great heads would lunge on their snakelike necks to snap and bite, or they would project the inside of their cheeks from the side of their mouths in a wobbling, fleshy bubble, working up a mouthful of spit, which they would propel in an unerringly accurate flume of stinking froth onto any person unfortunate or unobservant enough to get in their way.
But they provided prodigious quantities of milk—great calabashes full of the steaming, frothing liquid, so much richer than the fare from the Maasai’s own modest cows. The scrappy dry grass of the season did not seem to bother the camels. Indeed, they rejected it as inferior food, much as an elder might push aside maize meal in favor of meat. They stripped leaves from thorny bushes that even goats would balk at, and they chomped on cacti whose prickles provided protection from virtually all the grazers who were natural to this place. For the camels, of course, were not natural. They were aliens from the far north, farther even than the Samburu themselves, who claimed to have bought the creatures from light-skinned nomads from a land where no trees grew and sand ate all save the hardiest plants.
That milk was the price of the Samburu’s ticket through Maasai country and of their admission to the protection of the boma. For the Maasai loved milk, and the villagers gorged upon it. It would be a different story when the rains returned and their own cows’ milk flowed freely once more, but for now, the newcomers were tolerated with a mixture of wary amusement and contempt.
No one held the Samburu in greater contempt than Mollel. At that time, he was on the verge of becoming a moran himself, and these itinerants offended his very sense of what it meant to be Maasai. They spoke Maa, albeit with a strange accent, and claimed to be related. To Mollel, however, the Samburu bore the same relation to Maasai as their mangy, ill-tempered stock did to the noble cow (as with most of his tribe, Mollel held an idealized notion of cattle that was at times far removed from the real state of their beasts).
The Samburu worshipped Enkai, but they thought, ludicrously, that he lived in the sky instead of atop Ol Doinyo Lenkai. They wore shukas, but they wrapped them around both shoulders instead of crossing them over the chest and knotting them at the right shoulder. The colors of their shawls bore no rhyme or reason, seemingly being picked at random. Women wore red and men wore blue, which scandalized the teenage Mollel. Their beadwork was similarly confused, and—as though it were a mere whim of fashion rather than an intrinsic mark of identity—half the men didn’t even have their earlobes pierced and stretched into loops.
In short, they were unkempt, undisciplined, undignified, ignorant, unsophisticated, cut-rate Maasai. Mollel loathed them and longed for the time when they would move on to inflict their presence on others.
Perhaps, though, the real reason for his contempt lay in the fact that Lendeva idolized them.
—Did you know, the young boy told Mollel breathlessly after spending all day among his Samburu counterparts, that the reason their bows are so tiny is because their arrows are poison-tipped? Imagine that, Mollel. They don’t need to aim for the neck or hope that an arrow will somehow have enough force to pierce through an antelope’s ribs. In fact, forget antelopes! One of those can take down a zebra, a giraffe. Even an elephant, Mollel! All they need to do is make the tiniest scratch in the hide, and …
Lendeva began to shake. His eyes popped and his body convulsed and he collapsed in the dust, kicking and writhing before a silent stillness descended upon him.
—The only thing you need to remember, he continued, springing once more to his feet and beating the dust out of his shawl, is to cut the infected muscle out of the animal straightaway. Even if it’s the rump, the best bit, you have to burn it or bury it deep so your dogs don’t get it. Otherwise it’s certain death for them, too.
It struck Mollel as a cowardly, un-Maasai way of doing things. Where was the glory in bringing down an animal with a poison arrow? You might as well be a white man and use a gun.
This was the type of thing Lendeva was picking up from his new Samburu friends. Why, their morans spoke to him almost like an equal, when no Maasai moran would deign to engage with a boy in the lower age-caste other than to deliver him a kick up the backside or a clip around the ear.
So it was with relief that Mollel saw the first clouds gather far to the west and watched them creep closer every day. When they burst, and the parched earth broke into life and the first fresh grass appeared like a fuzz of hair on a bare, shaved scalp, the Samburu began to take apart their homes and lash them to the sides of their camels. Mollel witnessed the younger boy’s sadness as he bade farewell to the awkwardly dressed, strange-talking youths, and it irked him: he inspired no such affection in his brother. The tears that flowed down Lendeva’s cheeks were a sign of weakness, Mollel told himself. An infection from the newcomers. The sooner they were gone, the better. Then everything would go back to normal.
* * *
Mollel tries to pull himself back to the present. His thoughts are slippery and fugitive these days. Is it a recurrence of his old troubles, this inability to remain anchored? He thinks of the small plastic bottle of pills he carries in his pocket. They are supposed to help keep the dark thoughts away. Nothing is to be gained by dwelling on the distant or the disappeared. It is dangerous.
The roses, which have been steadily darkening in color, suddenly give way to a square of fleshy pink. Mollel’s eyes protest at the color clash, but he is grateful for it. It focuses him like a slap in the face. The Maasai—who love color—also recognize its power. Their shukas—red for a man, blue on a woman—allow them to be seen for miles in a dusty brown landscape. A distant point of color becomes a neighbor. A speck of humanity in the vastness of nature.
But here, these blocks of color overwhelm. There is neither humanity nor nature in this space.
And then a sound that, while faint, pierces the surreal atmosphere. The sound of a woman’s sobs.
Having walked the length of the polytunnel, the warrior and the two policemen draw up at an office: nothing more than an open-topped box delineated by a frame of planed timber and fiberboard panels with a door, which is shut. A white man stands in front of it, wide forearms crossed over his chest.
—You took your goddamn time, he says.
In the reflected pink light, his face resembles sunset on the sandstone cliffs that hang above the town, marking the entrance to Hell’s Gate. Craggy. Weatherworn. Unforgiving. There is a certain type of mzungu—white person—who looks like he’s been left out in the sun to dry.
This guy is biltong.
—Mike De Wit, he continues, putting out a massive red hand for Mollel to shake. He seems to know Shadrack already. —I’m the manager here.
—British? asks Mollel.
The mighty brows gather. —Fuck, no! he spits. De Wit? African! I’m as African as you, bwana.
Mollel knows that just as any Kenyan can immediately identify a stranger’s tribe from the way he speaks, the way he looks or dresses, the gestures he uses—similar nuances also exist among the nation of white people. This is a fact he is perfectly prepared to accept: indeed, now that it’s been pointed out to him, he can detect the clipped, plosive quality of this man’s speech that characterizes an Afrikaner. But he has had too little interaction with wazungu to intuit accurately where they come from. British was usually a safe bet. Failing that, American.
—What seems to be the problem, Mr. De Wit?
The Afrikaner jerks a thumb at the cubicle door. From within, the sound of sobbing continues unabated.
—We have a simple policy here, he says. We pay a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Steal, and you’re out. Most people seem to accept that. But not this one. She’s refusing to go. I put her in there, thinking she’d cry herself out sooner or later. Fat chance. She’s not going to leave without causing a scene.
Shadrack looks sceptically at De Wit and the warrior. —You’re both big boys, he says. Why didn’t you just pick the bitch up and throw her out onto the street?
—And have accusations of cruelty flying around? That sort of thing may not bother the police department, Officer. In fact, I get the feeling you positively encourage it. But we’re a business. You know who we sell to? Big companies. Big names. Supermarkets in Britain and Holland and Germany. They don’t want their brand tarnished by some blogger with a bone to pick in Maili Ishirini. These girls all have cell phones. Some have video. How’s that going to look to the PR department of a blue-chip company when footage of a supplier beating up the workers gets posted on YouTube?
And yet, thinks Mollel, an entire village can be wiped out and no one cares, because no one was there to film it. Having found himself at the center of a journalistic frenzy at one time in his life, the priorities and whims of the mass media confound him. Still, he understands De Wit’s general point. If the woman needs to be removed, much better to hand the responsibility over to the police.
—You did right to call us, says Mollel. Are you intending to press charges?
This causes De Wit and the warrior to break out into hearty laughter.
—And spend all day in Naivasha courthouse waiting for Judge Singh to take his finger out of his ass? No thanks. Maybe if she’d made off with the payroll. But for what she took, it’s not worth it.
—And what, asks Mollel, did she take?
De Wit’s gray eyes crinkle under his brows. —What do you suppose she took?
Mollel looks around him. He knows that impoverished people will steal anything. Hell, the rich will steal anything too, for that matter, and more brazenly. Even so, there is little obvious temptation here. The overalls, perhaps, might have some value; the cutting knives. Even the baskets that the women wear on their backs. Is any of this worth the risk of losing a job?
This time, Shadrack joins in with the laughter of the other two at Mollel’s blank response. —Flowers, you idiot! he cackles. What else is there to steal here?
Flowers. Of course. Just as Mollel could not understand why anyone would buy them, he has been blind to the idea that someone would want to steal them.
A wail comes up from within the cubicle, killing the laughter. So much for crying herself out.
Shadrack, meanwhile, has produced a notebook and pencil. —What is the value of the flowers she stole? he asks.
De Wit screws his face into a grimace. —That depends.
—Depends on what?
—On your definition of monetary value.
—Oh, Christ, says Shadrack. This is getting a bit beyond me. I only need a figure for the report.
For once, Mollel has a twinge of sympathy for the younger man. —Surely, he says to De Wit, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice, surely the whole point of monetary value is that something is either worth so many shillings and cents, or it’s not?
—Not really, says De Wit.
Mollel rubs his eyes.
—Go on then, he says. Explain it to me.
—So, yesterday, I’m coming back from a weekend in the city, De Wit starts. Traffic’s slow heading the other way, back into Nairobi. It always is, Sunday evening. All the city workers returning from the country. The real jam starts on the road up the escarpment—you know how those heavy trucks struggle on the incline. I’m coasting down, passing all this traffic, looking out for hawkers. God knows where they come from, but the minute there’s a traffic jam, they’re out like ants at a picnic. Then I see her. She’s walking through the lines of traffic. Arms full of roses.
—How many roses, roughly?
—Three hundred and twelve, De Wit snaps back. There’s no roughly in this game. I could tell, even from that distance. Twenty-six bunches, twelve stems a bunch, three hundred and twelve stems.
—So did you stop? Did you challenge her?
—Pfft! says De Wit. I was off duty. It could wait until this morning.
—So you were in a moving vehicle. You saw your employee selling roses on the roadside. Just a question, Mr. De Wit. How do you know they were your roses?
De Wit gives him a scornful look. —Thirty years in this business. That’s how I know they were my roses.
—And what would she have got for them?
De Wit shrugs. —I suppose she would have been selling them for maybe a hundred bob a bunch.
Mollel smiles. —So my colleague’s question about value wasn’t so very difficult. The roses are worth twenty-six hundred shillings.
—To her, agrees De Wit. But look.
He walks over to a shelf and returns with a gunlike device, which he brandishes at Mollel. In one swift movement he presses it against Mollel’s chest, and the device clicks.
Mollel looks down. A small adhesive label is sitting on his jacket pocket. He peels it off and reads it.
The label is branded with a logo and a name unfamiliar to him. Underneath is a price: £4.99, it reads.
—Four pounds ninety-nine, says De Wit. That’s five hundred fifty-three shillings at today’s rate. Twenty-six bunches at five fifty-three makes fourteen thousand three hundred seventy-eight shillings. That’s a month’s wages for her, right there. Or, to put it another way, one month’s wages less for someone else.
—Sorry, says Shadrack, licking his pencil. What was that figure again?
—Fourteen thousand three hundred …
Mollel interrupts him. —Don’t put that down.
—It’s only for the report, Mollel. She’s not being charged, remember.
—Even so. Just put between two thousand and fourteen thousand shillings.
—Not so clear-cut after all, eh, Officer? De Wit can hardly keep the contempt from his voice.
Mollel sighs. He feels a pang of nostalgia for his old life back at Central Police Post in Nairobi. Otieno might have treated him with the same contempt as this farmer, but at least Otieno had his stripes. And now he had to deal with the woman whose pitiful snivels could still be heard leaking from the cubicle behind them. He’d rather be facing down a panga-wielding mob.
But when he was sent away from Nairobi, Otieno’s instructions were clear: Keep a lid on that temper of yours. Keep your head down. Try to stay out of trouble for a while.
Copyright © 2015 Richard Crompton.
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Richard Crompton is a former BBC journalist and producer. He moved to East Africa several years ago with his wife, a human rights lawyer who worked on the Rwanda genocide trials. Crompton won the Daily Telegraph Short Story Award in 2010, and his first novel, Hour of the Red God, was published to great popular acclaim in 2013. He lives in Nairobi.