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Blame it on the Stars

 

Anthony Mugo

 

 

 

 

 

Blame it on the stars

 

 

 

 

 

Published by Anthony Mugo

Copyright ©2017 by Anthony Mugo

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems – except in the case of brief quotations in articles or reviews – without the permission in writing from its publisher, Anthony Mugo. authormugo2016@gmail.com

 

 

Disclaimer

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Disclaimer

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

List of Characters

About Anthony Mugo

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Product description

 

 

When Mukaru’s marriage to Simane collapsed he retained custody of their children, Njorua and Antonnina. He married Mutana who had a son, Mutuiria. She bore him Sarah. Mukaru dies leaving behind a will that tie his beneficiaries together for four years. A week is hardly gone before Sarah is kidnapped forcing the family to disregard the will. Who would demand a million shillings from a family that is down to its last cent? Will Njorua and Antonnina sacrifice their inheritance in time to save Sarah? Blame it on the Stars affirms Anthony Mugo’s place as a master storyteller.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

I hoped the nightmare would end sooner than later, that when dawn finally came it would bring a bright day.

“Muthuri Mukaru was loved and respected by all for his wisdom and integrity,” the eulogist was saying. “He stood for truth and justice. Above all he embodied righteousness so resolutely in him we saw God’s ways. The angels must be happy to have him in their midst as we speak. We loved him but God loved him more.”

Now, that was ridiculous. God loves us nonstop and blessing us with a new day is proof of His love. Could the opposite hold?

The speakers recited everything ever said in a funeral of a great man. And Muthuri Mukaru was a great man. The pastor challenged all present to live the values and ideals that the diseased had held so dear. “What shall be your story when your turn comes?”

A part of me was inside the black casket. The extent of our loss was reflected in the humanity that had brought Mung’etho to a standstill to pay homage to Muthuri Mukaru.

It shall be a wonderful place, that home, wonderful place without death. The gloomy songs dragged on. We shall live with Him for all eternity.

The emcee summoned family members to the grave ‘to throw soil.’ I dreaded this part most because it is when the bereaved lose it. They wail, they cry, they collapse. Throwing dirt at a loved one marks a point of no return.

Sarah, sobbing silently to my left, let go of my hand and nestled closer to Mother. Across the grave Njorua and Antonnina were sad statues staring into the hungry pit. Between them was Ascar Simane, their long lost, now found mother; a thin, brown woman in cheap stiletto, a tank top, a red miniskirt, a wig and dark dragonfly-eyes sunglasses. I have seen you before, I told myself, but where? To shut out the tragic reality unfolding before my eyes I tried to figure out how Simane got wind of Father’s death in time for the funeral. Why shun him for two decades only to appear at his funeral? How could she manage to cut the image of a widow?

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the pastor emphasized each word by throwing some soil into the pit. Until today the pastor’s words were just words people recited. Now they had a heartbreaking weight about them. Death is so crushing, particularly that of a man like Muthuri Mukaru. I scooped a handful of earth, splashed it on the coffin and retreated fast. All the while I willed myself not to break down.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Our home recorded heavy visitor traffic in the run-up to the burial with mourners keeping us company until late in the night. On the day of the burial dusk found only four of us home; Mother, Sarah, Antonnina and I. Minutes were like days, hours like months. Had there been a ‘forward’ button I would have leapt forth a few months. Mother, Sarah and Antonnina hit the sack at seven. Njorua arrived shortly after nine, drunk. He rummaged his pockets for his keys, gave up and dropped on my bed. He was snoring like a stuck caterpillar in no time.

In the morning Mother had done her best to cultivate harmony in the family. “How is everyone holding up?’ she had begun. ‘Personally I would rather have it differently but, as it were, God has the upper hand. Who are we to question Him? Today we grieve but tomorrow we walk tall like your father taught us. We should never let the world forget that we learnt from the best. The journey is far from over; this is but a bump on the road. ”

One would have wrongly read Mother’s smile as celebration of her husband’s demise. Heavens knew how she managed to smile in the face of a calamity. Much as her optimism was assuring facts pointed to a bleak future. A little history will explain my pessimism. Father’s marriage to Ascar Simane, mother to Njorua and Antonnina, didn’t work out. He married my mother thereby adopting me. Mother bore him Sarah. Think of a mosaic family. To Njorua and Antonnina my mother cost their mother her marriage. Father, an owl of repute, had strived and succeeded to a good extent to induce rhythm in the family. With him gone the going just got tougher.

“We are a member down,” Mother went on, “but we are still family. A family is like a forest; it looks dense from outside but once you are inside you see that each tree has its place. We all have a place in this family; let no one put that in doubt. Let no one punch holes in our boat.”

I had to commend Mother for her forethought because Njorua and Antonnina needed constant reminder that this was their rightful home. The fact that Mother had brought them up as her own did little to endear her to them. The adage that only another woman’s child’s yam spoils the fire holds true until you meet my mother. I could be biased because, well, you can’t expect me to join the world in stoning my mother. Nonetheless, I honestly believe that each of us had received as much punishment and commendation as they deserved. The duty rota revolved around the four of us. But for Sarah who was still in Form Four we were equally educated.

“Your father loved each one of us equally,” Mother went on. “His will states and I read: in the event of my death it is my wish that four years following my death the benefactors herein should inherit my estate equally; my dear wife Mutumia Mutana, my sons Stanley Njorua and Titus Mutuiria, my daughters Antonnina Karuana and Sarah Mwihaki.”

She folded the paper from which she had read.

I couldn’t help smiling. It was just like Father to throw in a catch; we were joined in the estate for four years! It cannot be said that Mother dropped a bombshell considering Father’s believe that boy or girl all children deserved equal treatment.

“I agree with your father to the extent that if all what is left is a bean each one of us owns an equal share in it. I will defend his wish to my last breath.”

I regarded the snoring heap on my bed wondering where I would sleep. Njorua and I had shared the bed while young and most were the days I woke up to find his legs across my body. I doubted he had changed. I was still racking my brain for a way out when the wails cut the night air. The general source of the wails was east. I put on a heavy jacket and walked out of the compound. An hour earlier the moon had shone proudly against a bright sky but now ash-grey clouds had blanketed it. I joined a couple of men who were hurrying past our compound, a torch beam tracing their way. By now the howls were louder and the word ‘fire!’ was discernable.

“Who is so unlucky?” I asked.

“We will know soon enough,” one of the men said.

We were a sizeable group by the time we got to the tragic spot. A cabin belonging to Jimmy, a former classmate, was afire. Thirty or so men were busy fighting the fire as women and children shouted encouragement. The fire seemed to grow with every effort to contain it, its yellow tongues dancing menacingly into the night. The village neither had trained fire-fighters nor fire fighting equipment. Nonetheless, the men’s determination was phenomenal. They scooped soil with sufurias and buckets and shirts. A drunken man was urinating on the fire shouting at it to die out. Jimmy’s mother and sister stood at a distance crying their hearts out. At one point Jimmy’s mother threatened to toss herself in the fire. “My son! My only son!” She cried.

A woman handed me a bucket and I joined in the effort to bury the monster. It was one scolding, invincible inferno that made me shudder at God’s tool for the ultimate punishment. Despite a strong resolve to kill the fire we retired one after the other. Eventually we all stood helpless watching the destructive frames dance merrily into the pinch-dark night. Finally, with nothing left to consume, the fire smouldered down leaving skeletons; of a lantern, a metallic bed – and Jimmy.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite for breakfast either. The stomach-churning image of Jimmy’s charred remains had embedded itself on my mind. When Njorua learnt of the tragedy he was devastated.

“You should have woken me up,” Njorua said.

“You were half dead,” I said. “Besides, nobody could have done anything.”

“What caused the fire?”

“I don’t know.”

The new police Land Cruiser drove into our compound at eight sharp. Policepersons form such an odd subset of humanity I always find myself considering an escape, or a plausible story, the moment I see the blue uniform. Forget that they are your kin; they just can’t be trusted. The moment they train their lenses on you it doesn’t matter that you are an angel who has just landed from heaven. If they are humane they appear more suspect.

Either we were shoot-first-explain-later criminals or the officers were out to impress with their guns. The first officer’s face was so creased he didn’t require an AK47 to intimidate. His eyes were stone marbles lodged between static eyelids. I couldn’t imagine his companion carrying his bulk in pursuit of a suspect. I guessed an officer his size would use his gun faster than run after a suspect.

I did a quick soul audit whose finding was a snow-white conscience. That could only mean one thing: Njorua was in trouble again. Little wonder he was fidgeting!

“What is it this time?”

The officers were upon us before I could get an answer. The two took their time to study us.

“Titus Mutuiria?” the burly one said.

“My name,” I stammered struggling to my feet. Njorua sighed audibly.

“You will accompany us to the post.”

My vocal cords went on strike. Now this had to be a mistake, or a sick joke.

“Why?”

“You will know soon enough.”

I was painfully aware that resisting arrest was a crime in itself. As I walked to the Land Cruiser I did a quick re-audit of my soul. Still I couldn’t lay a finger on any cause to haul me to the police post so early. My mother was walking through the gate as we were driving out.

We got to the police post after the longest ten minutes of my life.

Originally Mung’etho was a ranch. Twenty or so years before the owner decided to sell it. Some enterprising individuals bought it and sold it off in small parcels. The effect was a removed settlement – twenty five kilometres from Kiaro, the nearest town- because adjoining ranches were still operational. The new landowners built homes and churches, enterprising ones set up businesses; the government built a school, a health centre and a police post. Full allotment of available land did not prevent the influx of newcomers who encroached on the vast Mutitu Forest to the east. At the entrance to the village stood the chief’s office, a modern version of the traditional hut, with the builders having stolen the design but substituted building materials with galvanised iron sheets. A strip of the national flag colours ran round, with the Court of Arms gracing the front door. The chief, together with four Administration Police officers attached to his office, represented the face and hand of the government in the village. The chief and six village elders formed the local court that met every Wednesday to try cases. Cases that the court could not handle were forwarded to Kiaro Law Courts.

A similar hut to that of the chief but for a strip and emblem of the Administration Police stood twenty metres away. Two bigger huts that housed the AP stood next to it, two sharing one. By and large Mung’etho was a jolly place to be in during fair-weather; serene, easy, natural. However, dry spells brought dust and rainy ones made it muddy. A battered public van called Mung’etho Airbus ferried people between Kiaro and Mung’etho, two trips on Monday and Thursday, being market days, and one trip on other days, except Sunday.

Once at the post the officers ushered me into the OB.

“This should be brief,” the boss said. “A young man called Jimmy Gasike died yesterday.”

I nodded. “I answered the distress call.”

“Did you know him well?”

Jimmy and I weren’t that close. We had a brawl while in standard six which, thanks to the timely arrival of the class teacher, did not get to eye gorging or knocking off some teeth. Jimmy belonged to the ‘high class’, a group of students who considered themselves too civilised, signified by truancy, fancy haircuts and cigarette smoking.

“He was my classmate,” I said.

“Did you see him yesterday?”

“No.”

“When did you two meet last?”

“I can’t tell. We were not that close.”

“You once fought in class.”

“That was years ago.”

“Why did you fight?”

“Jimmy had confiscated my book. Look, if this is the reason I am here we sorted it out.”

The officer was not to be hurried. “According to Jimmy’s mother he planned to see you before he was killed.”

Did he say Jimmy was killed? “That is news to me.”

“Why would he want to see you?”

Six eyes fixed me, expecting.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said.

“Where were you between seven and nine?”

“At home.”

“Who can vouch for you?”

I gave the names of my mother, Sarah, Antonnina and the two men I had accompanied to Jimmy’s home.

“What tells you he was killed?” I asked.

“His mother heard an explosion before the house caught fire,” the officer said. “For now you are free to go.”

I walked out wondering why I had to undergo so much drama.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

“His blood is on you! It will haunt you forever!”

The high-pitched voice caught me off-guard. It belonged to Jimmy’s mother and was directed at me. She had cried a lot and slept little judging from the red eyes. Her brother did his best to cut her off but she still managed to curse and abuse me severally. For a moment I was hypnotised. What was my crime?

My mind went back a decade before. At the entrance to Jimmy’s homestead stood a quaver tree. On this day we were walking from school when Jimmy said we could have the inviting fruits. He led the way up the tree. We threw our bags on the ground, six boys in total, and competed up the tree. There was no time to eat; we just stuffed the fruits in our pockets. Our party was cut short by the arrival of Jimmy’s mother. Anger shook her. She yelled and flung anything she could lay her hands on at us. As we raced down the slippery tree one of the boys tumbled and dislocated his leg. What followed was an ugly tussle. The injured boy’s parents demanded medical care for their son; Jimmy’s mother’s demanded payment for her quavers. To her, we were thieves since Jimmy was in no position to give us the quavers. “It is upon every parent to tame their kids’ greed,” she said. Everyone at the chief’s court had their jaws dropping. We were wrong but her reaction suited a graver offence. And how could she think of quavers when a victim of her wrath was bedridden? The court ordered Jimmy’s mother to meet medical expenses of the injured boy. Our parents would pay for her quavers.

And now I stood in her line of fire.

A scene at the bus stop caught my eye. Antonnina was talking animatedly; Njorua was pacing to and fro, his fists clenching and unclenching; their mother was fighting to calm the two down. Simane spotted me and waved.

“Titus, right?” Simane said.

“In the flesh,” I said joining the three.

“I had to spend the night,’ Simane said. “Transport in this place is a mess.”

“I hope you enjoyed the night.”

“I did. Njorua has just told me about your arrest.”

I turned to face my stepbrother. “I wouldn’t consider it an arrest. Apparently, Jimmy, the boy who died in a fire, planned to see me.”

“Why?”

I lifted my shoulders and dropped them.

“What is the connection between his wanting to see you and the fire?” Njorua asked.

“The police think he was killed,” I said.

“Why?” Antonnina asked.

“There was an explosion before the fire engulfed the house.”

“It could be the Laughing Gang,” Antonnina asked.

“Laughing Gang?” Simane said.

“It is a gang of three members which wears a mask with a laughing mouth,” Njorua said. “It has been terrorizing the village for a while now.”

“Look,’ I said, “I’ll give you room to catch up.”

“If you must,” Simane said.

News of my ‘arrest’ had done the rounds and I rushed home to avoid the nagging questions. I ran into my girlfriend, Joan, on the way.

“Why are you running against the traffic?” Joan asked. “The Music Junkies concert is a couple of hours away.”

Heavens, I had forgotten the concert! Music Junkies was not only my favourite band, it was the hottest act at the time. Their triumph over drug abuse had inspired the nation.

“I’ll just freshen up,” I said.

“I’ll be waiting for you.”

I could not tell when or why Joan and I started drifting apart. For a long time I had to play cat-and-mouse with her father who disapproved of our affair but now I was doing my best to avoid her. Whereas feelings insisted I stay the course reason was screaming, ‘Flee!’

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

I found Joan waiting twenty minutes past the agreed time. She kicked off a rant that, as it had become the norm, placed me bottommost among her friends’ boyfriends. My feelings won over reason so I let it flow. When she drained herself silence took over.

We stopped dead when we came upon the view at the village square.

“Look how much we’ve missed,” Joan said.

The huge lorry with the National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) banners all round had an improvised stage on which six boys about my age were performing. Their Reebok shoes, knickerbockers and t-shirts were a size too big. Their baseball caps were tilted to the side. I had listened to the playing song enough times to sing along word for word.

“I don wanna die, I wanna live…” I sang along. “I wanna live forever…”

We danced a good twenty minutes, a cloud of dust hovering over our heads. It was hit upon hit amid shouting from the audience. We shouted our disapproval when the music stopped.

“Mayouths hoyeee!” The band leader said.

“Hoyeee!”

“Ma youths, I have a very important announcement to make. Are you ready?”

“Yeeees!”

“Are you ready?”

“Yeeees!”

“Allow me to start with an introduction. Are you ready?”

We were ready.

“They call me Grandpa Junkie and no, I wasn’t always this way. My mother and I always argue about my age because, well, I can’t explain where five of my best years disappeared to. It all began with a puff of ngwai, then a glass of keroro and before I knew it, I was five years older. Woe unto mosquitoes that bit me. My parents became my worst enemies. I mean, how could they vilify bhang when they had never taken a puff? They recommended Jesus to me but, guys, a ‘high’ from Jesus is way too different. Conversely, my buddies knew the agony of going through the day without a puff of ngwai or a sip of keroro. Everything was perfect until two of my buddies died in a robbery. A month later another friend succumbed to drug overdose. I was like, what? Death should have manners and visit old people, not my age mates! But deep in me I knew I had courted death for such a long time I was lucky to be alive. I didn’t need another reason to enrol to a rehabilitation centre where I made new friends and here we are. We swore never to do drugs again; but we would forever be junkies – music junkies.”

There was clapping and cheering as I don wanna die blasted from the speakers.

“Buddies, there is life without drugs. If you are hooked don’t worry, we were there once. You only need to decide to live. We have joined hands with NACADA in a countrywide drive to urge youths not to waste themselves in drugs. Mayouths hoyeee!”

“Hoyeee!”

“It is time to stop dying and to start living. Are we ready to live?”

“Yeeeees!”

“Say no to drugs!”

“No to drugs!”

Joan saw Maryann, a former classmate, and joined her. For a moment I wondered what Joan saw in Maryann. The image of Maryann straddling our English teacher, her long hands punching away, will remain etched in my mind for a long time to come. She dropped out of school and earned her place in Mung’etho Secondary School’s hall of fame.

The two girls hugged before they disappeared behind the shops.

At this point Ephraim Mutongoria, the area chief, took the mike. I was destined to dislike the tall, slender man who either owned several Stetson hats or changed the feathers perched on the left side regularly. The feathers were beige today. To begin with Mutongoria had dumped my mother after siring me. However most of my disappointment in him stemmed from his ineptitude and unfairness.

“What a performance!” Mutongoria said. “Until today I thought Music Junkies was an all-girl band. Such golden voices! Imagine such talent going to waste. Unfortunately, much more talent has gone to waste in Mung’etho thanks to drug abuse; musicians who composed no song, actors who never stepped on stage, novelists who wrote no book. Families have collapsed. Crime has escalated. Girls can’t find suitable men to marry. Music Junkies have spelt it loud and clear; it is time to stop dying and to start living. To drugs pushers and illicit brew sellers, I have a news flash for you. We will get you.”

There were murmurs as the chief exited the stage.

Grandpa Junkie took the microphone. “Time for a dancing competition for Mr and Miss No Drugs in Mung’etho. Do we have dancers in Mung’etho?”

“Yeeees!’

“We will have four dancers on stage. The best dancer will take home a beautiful t-shirt from NACADA and a thousand shillings. Custom says we start with the ladies. Let’s have four volunteers on stage.”

I executed some dance moves now and then, mostly in private, moves that I doubted could prevail in a contest. All in all the appeal of earning a thousand shillings was far weaker than my stage flight.

I caught my breath as Joan and Maryann reappeared and climbed on stage. The bold, simmering girl executing warm-up moves was not the reserved Joan I knew. She seemed to have forgotten about me. As soon as the third and forth contestants joined Joan and Maryann music begun to play and the four got down to work. The crowd went wild. Maryann and Joan executed well co-coordinated moves; the other two just wriggled their bodies anyhow. The music stopped and Grandpa Junkie invited the audience to eliminate two dancers. As expected, Joan and Maryann survived the elimination. The music resumed and the two danced for a while before it stopped again.

“Do we have a winner?” Grandpa Junkie asked.

“Yeeees!”

“Joan or Maryann?”

“Joan!”

I didn’t join in the roar. My mind was in such turmoil I didn’t cheer as Joan received her reward.

I accosted Joan her when she climbed down the stage.

“What was that?”

“What was what?”Joan asked.

“You always say you have stage flight. Incidentally, where did you learn to dance like that?”

“Disco,” Maryann said hugging Joan.

“I am not talking to you!” I turned to Joan. “I need an answer.”

“Excuse me?” Joan reminded me of a wrestler challenging a rival. “I am not your wife!”

“How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Listen, I am dead tired of your village mentality.”

Before I knew it Joan, my lovely Joan, did the un-imaginable: she slapped me. I was paralysed with shock. Some sneering youths had surrounded us. The immediate thought was to redeem myself by teaching Joan a lesson she would never forget. I was a man and the era of Wangu wa Makeri was long gone. Father’s words came to mind in the nick of time: don’t make decisions when you are mad. At times being strong entails playing weak.

I left amid jeers.

Chapter 6

 

 

My mind was still numbed by Joan’s actions. It had dawned on me surprisingly fast that I hardly knew her. I knew of husband beaters, never boyfriend beaters. Did she think she could beat me in a physical bout? Whom did she go to disco with and what did they do there? My feelings for her told me she had a good explanation for her actions. Maybe her father was leaning on her too heavily she was finally bowing to the pressure. Maybe, just maybe… damn!

I forced my mind to focus on Jimmy. A number of questions on Jimmy begged for answers. Why would anyone sentence him to so painful a death? Was his death meant to stop him from seeing me? Why did he intend to see me in the first place? I had no answer to these questions. I knew I would never rest easy until I got answers to these questions. One thing was clear: if Jimmy was killed to pre-empt our meet I was in danger too.

“How does it feel to reunite with your mother?” I asked Njorua on his arrival home.

“My mother? Heavens above! I can only take her word for it. ”

“You have every reason to be excited.”

“I wish the circumstances were different,’ Njorua said. “Father’s death overshadows everything.”

“What is your plan now that you are reunited?”

“I don’t know,” Njorua sounded distant. “I guess I belong here. Tell me about the arrest.”

I narrated my interview with the police and the encounter with Jimmy’s mother.

“They could be on to something,” Njorua said.

I searched Njorua’s face. “What are you talking about?”

“Have you ever smoked bhang?”

“Should I?”

“I have,” Njorua said.

I wore my most disapproving look. No wonder Njorua was such an active volcano!

“I took my maiden puff way back in standard eight,” Njorua said. “Most of my classmates started the same time.”

“What has it got to do with Jimmy?”

“Everything. Jimmy worked for Boza, a ruthless drug pusher, until he failed to account for some proceeds.”

“Do you mean Jimmy was killed because of a debt?”

Njorua nodded.

“Does his mother know?”

“I don’t know.”

Of course if Jimmy’s mother knew about Boza she would have informed the police.

“It does not explain why he wanted to meet me,” I said.

“To a lot of people you are a detective thanks to the Karobia affair.”

I think it would have been unfair to credit a single individual with the arrest of William Karobia, the man who raped and impregnated Antonnina. Father, Njorua, Joan and several other people played part in the arrest. Nonetheless public perceptions are rarely founded on facts.

“Jimmy probably wanted you to identify Boza,” Njorua said.

“I don’t understand.”

“Boza never transacts business face to face. He drops the merchandise at a designated point, the pusher collects it. The pusher drops the week’s proceeds at an agreed point. I am next.”

“You are next what?”

“I owe Boza.”

“Are you telling me you have been selling drugs?” I could not put my distaste in words. Njorua had done outrageous things but this was madness. “How much?”

“Twenty thousand.”

A whistle escaped my lips.

“It was foolish of me to stop at the bar on my way to the drop-off point,” Njorua said. “I woke up in the ditch hours later, penniless. Someone must have laced my beer. I’ve paid ten thousand this far; heavens knows I’ve tried.”

I was speechless. Maybe I was being fed too much too fast because I had trouble processing it. Njorua handed me a piece of paper that read:

 

You have had your time. If my money is not at Point X before 7th March you are dead. Boza.

 

 

“I just told that woman, I mean my mother, about my situation,” Njorua said. “She told me there is nothing she can do. Imagine that!”

“What does she do?”

“Business. Don’t ask me what kind. Damn, I feel so wretched. I introduced Jimmy to drugs. He was my client for some time. His mother is blaming you for my sins.”

Njorua broke down. I couldn’t recall the last time I saw him cry.

“I’ve done the unthinkable to raise the cash yet here I am waiting for Boza to strike. I don’t want to die.”

I was speechless. Now I knew why he had looked like he had seen Mr. Death when he learnt of Jimmy’s death.

“Your mother has such a big heart,” Njorua went on. “To be honest I didn’t think we had a future together. Listening to her yesterday felt like coming across an oasis in the middle of Kalahari. I know I have been a thorn in her flesh. I am sending you to her. Please don’t let me die.”

“What is the use? We both know where we stand financially. If lack of money was a crime we would be in jail.”

“All I am asking you is to inform her of my situation.”

I thought about it for a while. “Fair enough.”

“Thank you.”

“What were you thinking involving yourself in drugs?”

“It was hip at the beginning, you know, one of those stupid things you do because you think you know everything only to realise you know nothing. How do you manage to stay out of trouble?”

“I know I can’t handle the consequences.”

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

Mother hit the roof when I passed Njorua’s message.

“The little devil!” she said. “What bugs him?”

“Heaven only knows.”

“Does his mother know?”

“She is no help. I could be mistaken but she looked like a drunkard to me.”

“She is a street girl.”

I stared at Mother, stupefied. “You mean Father married a street girl?”

“Either she fooled him or she changed over time,” Mother said. “One day she left and failed to turn up. Mukaru went in search of her only to find her among several street girls at a popular all-night joint. I don’t know why I am telling you this. ”

“Father said Simane ran away with a man,” I said.

“Some things are better left unsaid.”

I couldn’t agree more. Only an irresponsible father could have told his children that their mother was a street girl.

“Can Njorua assist the police to get Jimmy’s killer?” Mother asked.

I shook my head.

“What does he expect me to do?”

“I think he wants his death on our conscience,” I said.

 

***

 

We had just cleared supper when Mother addressed Njorua, “I got your message. I suggest you trust the police on this one.”

Njorua smiled painfully. “Boza could be a policeman,” he said. “Besides, what is there to share? That I’ve been pushing drugs for a man I can’t identify, the man in whose hands I’ll soon be dead? Trust me, if there was a way out of this mess besides settling the debt you would never have heard of this.”

A pregnant silence ruled the room. Njorua was fidgeting now.

“Does silence mean I am dead?” Njorua said angrily. Whoever equated the eldest son to his father had not met Njorua. While Father was wise and collected Njorua was like dry ice in hot water. “Come on, there must be something you can do.”

“Like what?” Mother asked.

“Selling the cow,” Antonnina said.

I faced Antonnina. “Forget it!”

“What do you value more, the cow or your brother?” Antonnina asked me. For a moment I wondered what was more loathsome between her look and her question. Apparently, Njorua’s request that I talk to Mother was part of a scheme to sell the cow. Njorua knew that Mother could not just brush him aside. Mother had rooted for a stronger family and family shares joys and woes.

“Why are we always cleaning his mess?” Sarah spoke for the first time.

“Give me a break high priestess,” Njorua said.

Sarah lost her head. “Your mother should at least have bailed you out.”

“Stop it, both of you!” Mother shouted.

“Better still she should have acted like a real mother for once by taking you away,” Sarah said.

“I said stop it!”

A disturbing silence fell round the table.

“This is too much too soon,” Mother said. “Fighting over it won’t solve or make it bearable. We are family. If we can’t stand by each other who will? Since we own the cow equally we will put the proposal to sell it to a vote.”

I couldn’t believe my own ears. Was I over-reacting? Antonnina cut five pieces of paper quickly and gave each a piece. I held my piece for a long moment feeling entrapped. Holding together was proving too costly. At the back of my head I was concerned that Jimmy had died trying to reach me. Another charred body would kill me. After all we could always buy another cow. I marked my ballot and put it in the cup with the others.

Mother took the cup and faced Njorua. “Are you still peddling drugs?” she asked.

“No.”

“Are you using?”

“Look, this is a new chapter…”

“Yes or no?”

“No. I promise to stay out of trouble no matter what.”

Mother handed the cup over to Antonnina who read the votes out. There were four YESs against one NO. Njorua’s attention shifted to Sarah whose eyes fell.

“Thank you,” Njorua said and followed Antonnina out.

“He should carry his own cross,” Sarah hissed.

“Darling, his cross is our cross.”

“You talk of family, what family?”

“That we disagree at times doesn’t make us less of a family,” Mother told her. “Milk and honey have different colours, but they share the same house peacefully.”

“Mother…”

“Let go, darling. We can always buy another cow.”

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

By nine the following day Njorua had a potential buyer of the cow. To us it was a fat, healthy Jersey; to the buyer it was a pack of bones. He created the impression that he was doing us a favour. At some point I lost my head and told him to get lost. Damn, why are the odds ever so stacked against the farmer? The odds are his enemy during acquisition of inputs that cost an arm and a leg; they don’t favour him either while offloading his outputs that fetch peanuts.

After half an hour of back and forth the buyer drove the cow away for twenty-five thousand, half its worth. I still believed that voting in favour was prudent but watching the cow leave filled adrenaline in my bloodstream.

Painting was my safe haven. I perched a piece of plywood on the makeshift tripod and got down to work.

Njorua returned at noon.

“Thank you for voting in favour,” he said handing me one thousand shillings, my share of the five thousand left after settling his debt.

“Just stay out of trouble.”

“Meet the all-new Njorua.”

“Boza sounds intriguing,” I said. My brush continued to strike back and forth. With each stroke the dull surface attained a new depth. “You must have profiled him somehow.”

Njorua looked away. He was militant but in this instance his emotions were properly tamed. If anything, he did not want to talk about it.

“The guy is a ghost,” he said.

“How do you communicate?”

“Through the toilet at the square.”

“How?”

“On market days I was supposed to visit the toilet at eleven sharp. He usually stuck a note in the rafters.”

Ingenious, I thought to myself. On market days people literally queue to use the toilet.

“The note gave the collection point for the following week’s supply. It also gave instructions on when and where to drop the current week’s proceeds. There were several coded drop-off points such as A, X, Y, etc. It could be underneath a rock or near a tree trunk.”

“What if someone beat him to the money?”

“That is unlikely. The collection points are unique to each pusher.”

“Why all the mystery?”

“Boza could be a respectable member of the society. Besides drug pushing is a serious crime in this country.”

“Yet you got yourself involved. Have you paid the amount?”

“I’ll pay tonight.”

I was lost in thought. “Why don’t we waylay him?”

“Are you out of your mind?” Njorua said. “That is how you get killed!”

“Then tell him I want in.”

“You don’t approach Boza; he approaches you.”

“How did he approach you?”

Njorua looked away. “I found a note in my book one day. ‘Are you ready to make good money?’ As they say, the rest is history. You love dancing with danger but you don’t want an enemy in Boza.”

“Someone ought to do something. Soon every youth shall be too stoned to tell right from left.”

“Tackling crime is the responsibility of the police,” Njorua said. “They have the training, the weapons and we pay them so that civilians like you and me can go about their business.”

“What business would that be when Jimmy is dead and our cow is gone? Isn’t Boza our business?”

“The cat must have had a similar argument before it met its death,” Njorua sprung to his feet. “This conversation is over.”

With that Njorua took off.

I stowed my tools away telling myself I had done enough painting for the day. Back in my room Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji were asking who could bwogo them on my transistor radio. The presenter kept interrupting the song – damn, they always interrupted good songs – to read greetings cards. The music continued to play in the background, its volume surging now and then.

The door flew open and Joan, smiling ear-to-ear, walked in. She bolted the door and leaned against it. She looked as haggard as a hen in a whirlwind. My mind was in turmoil; was she here to slap me some more? I hope that if and when God remodels man He fixes whatever renders man so irresponsive to reason in the presence of a woman. If Joan was a man who had slapped me not so long ago I would have welcomed him with kicks and jabs. However, Joan being a young, beautiful woman the best I could do was, “What the hell are you doing here?”

“What do you mean? A minute without a reminder of my love for you and you start asking what I am doing here?”

I had to chuckle. “Oh, sorry, I almost forgot. You love me so much you slapped me. Thank you very much but your love is so weird!”

“I am so sorry.”

“Like hell you are!”

“Come on, Titus. Don’t let a single moment of anger derail our affair. You must know me better than that. Allow me to prove how sorry I am.”

She stood on tiptoe bubbling with enthusiasm like a kid, her out-spread hands ready to give me a hug. I held back prompting her to bridge the gap between us. She embraced me and before I knew it, her lips were on my lips, searching, exploring. With her firm breast pressed hard against my chest and the sensual lips probing mine I was in heaven. My mind – my rational mind – went to sleep. If Joan meant to surprise me then I was pleasantly surprised. We had kissed before but not this intensely. I had fantasized and wished for this moment and, it seemed, so had she. When she started undoing her blouse my mind rebooted.

“Wait a second,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Are you a question-asking machine now?”

“You should leave.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said you should leave.”

She jumped on my bed and lay on her back. “Make me.”

A knock at the door made me start. I peeped through a crack on the door and cursed: Mother and Kimotho, Joan’s father, stood outside. I leaned against the door and squeezed my eyes shut in rage. The knocking persisted.

I swung the door open. “Get out!”

Joan got on her feet and stood akimbo. “Is the cane meant for me? You better accept that I am a grownup and I can do whatever I want!”

Kimotho was too enraged to talk. He stormed in knocking me aside in the process. He slapped Joan who dropped on the bed crying and screaming. Kimotho dragged her out.

“What was that?” Mother asked when the two left.

We sized up each other for a while. What could I say?

“We are not done here.”

I kicked the bed before I dropped on it. What the hell was going on? Only a few months before Joan had been the reserved, simple countryside girl. Now she went to disco, she was slapping me and, all of a sudden, she was throwing herself at me. Something was pressing my back and I jumped to a sitting position only to see Joan’s purse. It was already open hence I could see its contents. The roll of bhang competing for size with a lipstick caught my eye. I dropped on the bed in despair. Everything was clear now. Money requests, wild moods, fights, Maryann’s company – Joan, my lovely Joan, was doing drugs. Despair weighed down on me. Men were known to do drugs, not females. What was the world coming to?

I locked my room and walked out of the compound. Kimotho welcomed me with boiling eyes. For reasons best known to him he did not consider me good enough for his daughter.

“What will it take to keep you off my daughter?” he said.

Nothing, I thought, but said nothing. I was dying to know why he was such a burden to his daughter she sought solace in drugs.

“I brought Joan’s purse,” I said handing the purse over. “You should see its contents.”

Kimotho unzipped the purse then glared at me.

“She needs help,” I told him and walked away.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

 

As you near the end most things are at their sweetest. Such is sleep at wee hours. The bed becomes cosier drugging the mind; dreams become more adventurous and appealing. And that is when the alarm goes off or, worse, when people decide to come knocking. As I turned this and that way looking for a comfier sleeping position I hung on the hope that the knocking was part of a dream. However, the knocking grew too loud and insistent to be ignored. I woke up, swept the blanket aside and swung my feet off the bed fighting hard to keep my eyelids open. I was increasingly finding it hard to wake up early and I made a mental note to look into the matter. As Father had rightly warned, managing freedom is not easy.

The banging persisted.

“Coming!”

I opened the door.

“I was afraid you will never wake up,” Joan’s mother said panting heavily. “You need to come with me.”

“Why?”

“It is Joan. She… she is beside herself. Of course a number of issues stand between us but this is not the time for anyone to stand trial because Joan could jump to her death any moment. Please, come and talk to her.”

I was fully awake now. I had issues with Joan and her father but, as her mother had rightly stated, this was not the time to settle scores. I changed quickly and took off after Joan’s mother. I overtook her halfway to her homestead.

Joan was perched on the branch of one of the avocado trees on their farm, a noose round her neck. Kimotho was on his knees pouring his heart out.

“How long has she been up there?” I asked one of the spectators.

“Twenty to thirty minutes,” the man said.

That was long enough to enumerate every advantage of life over death and for anyone with a nicety to chip in. Joan’s failure to either jump or climb down showed indecision.

“Joan?” I called.

She turned to gaze at me.

“Go away!” she said.

“I can’t do that,” I said getting closer. “I promised to stand by you all the way. If you want to die I want you to get it right. You see, there can only be one outcome should you use that rope: it will break. You might die but it is very unlikely. If you survive, which I am sure you will, you will break a leg, your neck or your backbone. Then your father will organize a fundraising and no one will turn up because what you are doing is stupid. Isn’t that right folks? You want a funeral, not a hospital bed. Let’s do a clean job. These people don’t understand what you have been going through but I do.”

“I want to die!”

“And I am here to ensure just that. I’ll bring you a proper rope. Somebody get me a rope!”

Kimotho accosted me. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

I was about to tell Kimotho that he was to blame for his daughter’s woes when his wife joined us.

“I need a rope and a knife,” I said. “Do you have them or not?”

Joan’s mother’s eyes oscillated between me and her husband before she darted to the house. She returned with a strong rope and a kitchen knife. I made a noose around my neck.

“I hope to God you know what you are doing because if you don’t…,” she said.

“You better prepare to break her fall,” I said and started towards the avocado tree.

“Don’t get near this tree!”

“You turned to drugs because your parents did not want us to be together,” I said. “And now, since they have pushed us to the corner, we must die together.

“You don’t know a thing about me!”

“Please wait for me,” I said.

“Don’t climb this tree! If you do I will jump!”

“Wait for me we jump together. You need a proper rope.”

“Keep away from me!”

“You love me, don’t you?”

“You kicked me out of your place.”

“I was wrong.”

“I will jump. I swear!”

“You’ll jump when we’re ready.”

“You are insane.”

“Am I?”

“If you think you can coax me you’re dead wrong.”

“Do you remember how we met?”

“Don’t play games with me! I will jump!”

“I borrowed your book and you insisted that I had to pay for it. I told you all I had was my heart. Do you remember?”

I cleared the trunk.

“What has it got to do with anything?”

“Everything,” I said. “We planned to have a home and beautiful children. You preferred a girl and a boy, remember? I wanted as many kids as we could manage. It was a wonderful dream. Now I cannot realise it without you. Why should I stay alive?”

When Joan failed to respond I became concerned. Had she shut me out?

“It is my father,” she said.

I faced the crowd which was watching us. “Why don’t you live and let live? Of course a funeral thrills you more than a wedding! I hope you enjoy this.”

There was crying and pleading now. Kimotho was calling me names. Some villagers were threatening to come after me.

“I had to say it darling,” I said working my way up. I was relieved to realise she had tied a bowline instead of a noose. “A man should never swallow poison because he is afraid to spit and offend others. Wait for me we do it in style.”

“Do you think I am stupid?”

“You are the cleverest person I know.”

“I know what you are doing. You want to trick me.”

“I want us to jump together.”

“Liar! Don’t get any closer.”

She made as if to jump and I was afraid this time she meant it.

“Wait! You are Miss No Drugs in Mung’etho, remember?” I began to sing. “I don wanna die, I wanna live… Before I forget, you are a natural dancer. You should teach me the moves someday. Do you remember what the Music Junkies said? There is life after drugs. You only need to choose life.”

Joan started to cry. “I knew it; you were playing with my mind.”

“Please let me assist you.”

“You can’t. I joined bad company. I have always gone to the disco in Kiaro. I don’t know why I listened to Maryann. She introduced me to drugs. Soon I fell out with my parents and then you. I am so sorry.”

“There is nothing to be sorry about.”

“I am a mess.”

“Did God say that?”

“I know it.”

“That is a stupid thought.”

“I am so wretched.”

“You are wiser now.”

“You can’t help me.”

“We have people who can.”

“I should die. I am not good for you.”

“That is not your decision to make.”

“It is.”

“Stay calm.”

I was near her now.

“Bye, Titus.”

“Wait!”

I grabbed Joan’s blouse as she started to tumble. I lost my grip almost immediately. The tree shook so badly I was lucky I had a strong branch under my left armpit. Joan’s body’s urge to survive had kicked in and she crutched at a branch. There were frantic calls for someone to do something fast. I started attacking the rope from which Joan was dangling using the kitchen knife. Damn! The knife wouldn’t cut fast enough. Wails were deafening now. If Joan lost her grip the rope would snap her neck. Half of the audience was urging me to cut faster, the other half was telling Joan to keep her grip.

The wailing went to top notch as Joan lost her grip. The rope was three quarters gone and her weight snapped what remained. She landed on a heap of mattresses and blankets. I noticed that four men had joined me up the tree. I was dump in sweat not from the action but from fear of things going wrong. If the applause from the audience was meant for me then I was a hero. But then it could have been a celebration now that Joan was safe.

“What a stupid manoeuvre,” the man closest to me said. “But it worked.”

I followed the men down feeling light-headed with relief. Joan had already been taken to the house. Her father studied me long and hard, shook his head and started towards the house.

A car was driving into the compound as I walked through the gate. I recognised the driver as Simeon, Joan’s elder brother who worked with Kenya Railways Corporation.

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

“You can’t afford to miss Benjamin,” my mother said. “Everything depends on the admission letter.”

It was the age of who knows who, not who can do what. Most things, an admission into a public college included, only worked through a friend, a relative or money. Benjamin, a former classmate, had gained admission into The Kenya Polytechnic thanks to his father’s friend. During his visit home the previous day Mother had tasked him with ensuring that I was joined him. Benjamin doubted his father’s friend would manage an extra slot but he promised to give it a try all the same. My mother was positive that a visit to kin and friends armed with an admission letter from an institution as reputable as The Kenya Polytechnic would result in well-wisher seeing me through college. I had my doubts, but so was the world when the Wright Brothers set out to fly.

When I arrived at the shopping centre and saw Triza, Benjamin’s sister, I knew I had missed the bus, literally. Mung’etho Airbus was the main means of transport in and out of the village.

“Benjamin and I planned to meet here,” I addressed Triza who studied me the way you would a grownup who has soiled himself. We had never interacted before. But for a beautiful face Triza was boyish; flat-chest, slender, tall. She was always in jeans pants and instead of the salon she visited the barber.

“He is gone,” she was curt.

I raised my hands and dropped them in despair. You stood no chance. When it comes to opportunities our friend’s friends are strangers. It would have been your name on pieces of paper in a dustbin somewhere.

“You are Njorua’s brother – stepbrother, right?” Her tone made being related to Njorua criminal.

“Titus,” I said offering my hand which she ignored.

“You and your mother have been busy like Jacob and Rebecca to take what rightfully belongs to Njorua and his sister. Will you kick them out now that the old man is gone? Excuse me.”

Triza hurried away. What the hell? Did I deserve that? Njorua, Triza’s former classmate, had obviously spread his venom around. I felt under siege in the midst of human traffic hurrying about. How many people saw Jacob and Rebecca in me and Mother?

I walked into Al Hotel and asked for a cup of tea. I don’t know why I visited the Al Hotel. Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe I was subconsciously stalking my enemy. Al, like most enemies, was a friend once. For many years my father ran the hotel while Alfred operated a provision store next door. Eager to avenge Antonnina after the rape, Father had engaged an old friend to pose as a witchdoctor with the aim of smoking the rapist out. Alfred would be a confidant to the fact that the witchdoctor thing was a farce. Alfred went back on his promise, Father’s business collapsed and Alfred bought it for a song.

I turned my attention to Boza. The little I had gathered on him spoke of a monster. I mean, who contracts students to push drugs? Who lynches his operative because of a debt? Boza was all out to turn a generation into stoned zombies. He had such little regard to the law he was possibly in collusion with law agencies. Njorua’s advice to let Boza be still rang in my ears. However, heeding the advice was tantamount to rubber-stamping Boza’s actions. The village was reeling from Jimmy’s death and tempers were high. However, despite the flaring emotions nobody wanted to act. My anger was deeper. By availing drugs to Joan Boza had wedged us apart. With the cow gone Sarah, now in form three, risked dropping out of school. Njorua had become a lay-about and I was not making much headway as a painter thanks to a society that put beggars and artistes in the same basket. A client once insisted that since a colour photo cost fifty bob a painting should cost much less as it was less factual. Imagine that.

I was conscious of the dangers of going personal on Boza. But then the more dangerous he was the more urgent the need to stop him. David wouldn’t be the hero we know today had he run away from Goliath. Walk towards danger. That is how you crush the enemy – or get crushed.

I didn’t consider myself an investigator. I just loved mysteries and Boza was the most mesmerizing of them all. Again, I hate to see things go wrong. I hate the apathy that had crept over the village. Little wonder drug pushers and the Laughing Gang were running amok.

Boza could either grow marijuana in Mung’etho or source it from Kiaro. Checking every farm for marijuana was impossible. So was checking every cargo arriving from Kiaro.

Mung’etho village consisted of a dozen shops, an inn, two tailor shops, a butchery, a herbal clinic and a pub where men converged in the evening to usher in the night through idle talk and draughts. The buildings, permanent and makeshift, formed a square like giants holding a conference, leaving an open space at the centre which acted as the open-air market. At the centre of the square stood a huge fig tree under which was the newest business in town: muguka. The proprietor was a thin, dreadlocked newcomer who hid behind dark sunglasses. It was rumoured that the sunglasses hid an open eye socket, a rumour I was yet to confirm. Currently he had three customers, their bulging jaws chewing like a grinding machine gone wild. Judging by the bursting jaw the seller did not subscribe to the wisdom of separating business from self. He had captured a number of regulars, Njorua included, within a short period of time.

My eyes rested on the second-hand clothes vendor a moment too long. I couldn’t determine what was most striking about him: his outfit which comprised a mini-skirt and a wig; his tall frame which had more bones than meat; or his chants and dance. Judging by the group of women who appeared more interested in amusement than buying skirts, he was the centre of attraction. The household goods seller was pushing all limits to steal the show; his horn speaker would snore then whine like a jail siren making his neighbours twist their faces in disgust. Only his bell came close to the noise from the horn speaker.

My focus moved to the centre of the Boza mystery, a small room, four feet square base and seven feet tall. But for the knee-high bricks skirting it was made of corrugated iron sheets. A poster near the toilet reminded us that it was the area councillor, Honourable Phillip Muteti, who had initiated the ‘project’. It was public, solitary, free and available twenty four hours. Anyone could leave a note any time and no one would notice except the person who knew what to look for. I had personally used the toilet several times before but now it held a crucial secret.

I walked to the toilet and locked myself in. The first step was to inspect every corner of the room. I did not expect to find anything but it was worth checking. If only the walls could talk. My heart beat faster as I felt a piece of paper on one of the frames. My hands were shaking as I retrieved it. It read:

 

Point W, ten rolls. Money point K, Sunday 8 pm.

 

I walked out checking whether anyone took notice of my visit. As far as I could tell everyone was busy transacting their business. Little wonder so much could go on for so long. I returned to Al Hotel and asked for a cup of tea. I planned to establish the addressee of the note. As time wore on and people continued to walk in and out of the toilet I wondered how I would single out the addressee. Would he display his frustration after missing the note? Six came without success and I decided to go home. I was dismayed. The only damage that Boza could suffer now that I had intercepted his note was delayed collection of ten rolls of bhang and the surrender of a week’s collection.

 

 

***

 

I knew what the trio walking in my direction was smoking from the way it was shared. The three former classmates had dropped off between standard five and seven. Jeremy and Gilbert had repeated standard three. The three repeated standard four where I caught up with them. Judging by his jeans suit and brand new pair of Safari Boots Jeremy was doing better than his friends. Now spotting a goatee, Gilbert could well pass for my father. I still recall the day Justin, Gilbert’s younger brother, lost his left eye in a fall off a lorry carrying sodas.

I should have been alarmed but I just kept walking. We had met on my way to the shopping centre and Jeremy had said ‘hi!’ But the ‘hi!’ was exchanged in broad day light amidst a number of pedestrians. I am not a coward which doesn’t mean I am a tough guy. Dusk was gathering fast and nothing noble could unite the three.

I called myself names when the three blocked my way. You should have bolted, dimwit! It was Gilbert’s turn at the joint.

“Hey boys,” I said in my manliest voice under the circumstances. And why wouldn’t I stammer? The three were high on bhang and heavens-knew-what-else. “Ho… How are things?”

“What things?” Justin asked.

Jeremy took a puff and blew the smoke in my face. I felt faint.

“Where can I get a good supply of that?” I said, Boza coming to mind.

“Oh, this?” Jeremy said. “Do altar boys use this?”

“Altar boy? Not me.”

“I know this softie,” Gilbert said. “He is spying on us.”

“That is bhang talking,” I said.

“He is spying on us!”

“Why would anyone spy on you?”

“Wait a second,” Jeremy said. “Our friend wants a supply of joints, am I right?”

“It’s time I got rich.”

“That is the spirit. I suggest we share what we have first. We are not selfish people, no?”

“Never,” Gilbert and Justin chorused.

“I just took some,” I said in protest.

“And now you will take ours.”

I chuckled nervously. “All I want is to…”

My heart somersaulted as Jeremy fished out a pistol. Where was everyone? Where was rain? Damn, I could even settle for a mild earthquake!

“Is that a real gun?”

“Do you really want to know?” Jeremy asked. “You have up to the count of three. One, two…”

I took the stub and took a puff fighting not to cough. I lost the battle and coughed my lungs out. The three had a hearty laugh.

“Virgin puff,” Gilbert said. “I was right. He is spying on us!”

“That is not true. I swear… I…,” I stopped hoping that in so doing the world would quit dancing. The last thing I remember is begging for mercy as Gilbert chocked me.

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

“If you shout again I’ll kill you. Understood?”

Kill me? The chicken-head was lucky that this was a dream. Dreams follow crooked scripts; this moment the enemy is visible, the next he is gone. If he lingers long enough for you to pull the trigger the gun becomes a spoon. If only it was in real life…

“Understood?”

Wait a minute, the menace in the voice sounded so real it sent a chill down my spine. “If you shout again…,” had I shouted before? I pinched myself and it surely hurt. If the pain was real so was Jeremy’s penetrating gaze. The same applied to his threat. Damn, how could he contemplate my death? At seventeen I was just starting to live! For the briefest moment I bemoan the loss to the world should I die with so many masterpieces in my head. But how could I possibly think of painting with my death so near?

I nodded prompting Jeremy to peel off the tape covering my mouth. I took my eyes off Jeremy for the first time to take in my whereabouts. A tin lamp standing on a stool was torn between fighting darkness and giving in. The room was small enough for the lamp to illuminate the four walls. The stool was the only item in way of furniture, an indication that no one lived here. I couldn’t find a solid telltale to my whereabouts so I turned to the question of why I was here and why my silence was necessary.

It all came back to me when Gilbert and Justin walked in. The puff, the…

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“Do you recall the day this softie ratted on us?” Gilbert asked his brother.

“Am I here because of milk?” I asked.

“The milk didn’t belong to you,” Gilbert said.

We were in standard four when, during lunch break, I saw the two brothers passing crates of milk across the fence. As the class prefect I was duty bound to report the matter.

“It belonged to the entire school,” I said.

“He is a born snitch,” Justin said.

“Cut it out!” Jeremy said.

“We dug a latrine pit!”

“I damn well know what you did,” Jeremy was terse. “I won’t allow your sideshows to get in the way. Time for revenge will come.”

“We will wait,” Gilbert’s look could have frozen boiling water. So I was somehow involved in their plan after which I was dispensable.

Like every captive I contemplated an escape. But how do you escape from a trigger-happy outfit? I was outnumbered and nothing short of a miracle could rescue me.

“It is time,” Jeremy said.

“Time for what?” I asked.

Gilbert opened the carry-all which he had arrived with and removed some clothes.

“You are the Laughing Gang!”

“Behold the best paying job in the world,” Jeremy told me. “Ever seen thieves demonstrating against high taxes or bad pay?”

“A good number is dead.”

“See this?” Jeremy was holding a phial. “Lucky balm from the most cunning witchdoctor ever. Every thief should have it. No marksman can get you.”

The gang embarked on preparations. Their uniform comprised of black overalls, baseball boots with no prints and black masks with a big laughing mouth painted in white. Gilbert, a trained tailor, proudly informed me that he had designed the uniform. He even invited me to suggest improvements if any. The three were so meticulous they could have been preparing for a heart surgery.

“Blindfold him,” Jeremy ordered.

“Can I use the balm?”

My request amused the three.

“Your survival start and stop with me, not the balm,” Jeremy moved closer to the lamp holding Boza’s note. “Point W, ten rolls. Money point K, Sunday 8 pm. You’re already in business. If you behave you just might live to chase your dream of drug pushing. For a steady supply talk to Kirari.”

Gilbert blindfolded me and led me out. He would direct me into the bush and laugh his lungs out. We had walked close to twenty minutes before my blindfold was lifted. When I got accustomed to the darkness I realised that we were homebound, an indication that we had passed through the shopping centre. But then we could have doubled back or walked in circles. The world had gone to sleep. For a moment I marvelled at the power of the night; it ordered men, downtrodden and mighty, to take cover in their sleep. The country had high aspirations and myriad problems but, so said the night, everything could very well wait for daylight.

My captors trailed me chatting in low tones. Now it was clear that they planned a raid and I had a role to play. They would certainly kill me after the raid. But they would hesitate to kill me before the raid.

It is stupid to sit back waiting for a miracle, I told myself. Miracles don’t just happen.

I quickened my pace and, throwing caution in the air, stormed the maize field to the right at full speed. I ran straight then left, straight then left. I slowed down a while later to listen. There was cursing and touch beams to my right. I ran straight only to come to the edge of the maize field. Before me were rows of potatoes. I breathed in fast trying to compose myself. A torch beam would pick me easily if I ventured into the open. I wouldn’t last long in the maize field either. What was I going to do? Was this the end? It came in a flash: run parallel to the road and rejoin it further down! I took off at such speed I toppled over.

The moment I stepped on the road the moon decided to side with the enemy.

“There he is!”

My legs almost gave in. I could possibly outrun whoever had spotted me but not a bullet. I kicked the wooden gate to my left and stormed the compound wailing for help for lack of better strategy. I kicked the door of the immediate house hoping to raise enough hell to wake up the entire neighbourhood. Some people do not sleep; they die and resurrect in the morning. How could they not hear their door being knocked down?

The probing beams were outside the gate now. I dashed to the plastic container used for harvesting water, climbed in and replaced the rid. Some footfalls walked past and disappeared to my left. They retreated only to stop a few paces away. I could not breathe. Go, please, just go.

“Who is there?” a voice emanated from the house.

I didn’t know how to react to the miserable guy inside the house. He himself needed to be rescued. My lungs could hold no more and I gasped for air. The container rid flew open giving way to a strong beam that caught me square in the face. Gilbert. He kicked the container so hard I was thrown clear. My wails and pleas were answered with kicks and jabs. Justin joined his brother in punishing me.

“Enough,” Jeremy had just arrived. “I said enough!”

“Who… who …is …there?” the voice in the house stammered.

“If you step outside you are dead,” Jeremy said. “If you shout we will torch the house.”

I was dragged out of the compound.

“Time for plan B,” Gilbert said.

“Please don’t kill me,” I pleaded. “I will do anything you want. I promise.”

“Did you hear me?” Gilbert hissed. “Let’s kill the chicken-head!”

“I agree,” Justin said.

I was now crying and pleading at the same time. “I am sorry. Whatever you planned me to do I can do it. Jeremy, just name it and I’ll do it. Come on, you need me to see this through.”

The three fell silent as I continued to plead.

“I am waiting for you,” Gilbert addressed Jeremy.

“Time to kill him will come,” Jeremy said.

“What?” Gilbert and Justin chorused. “He is a danger to the whole operation but you protect him because it is your plan!”

“Enough! Plan B means we adjourn until tomorrow. What if they use that money? It will be for nothing! It has to be tonight! We just need to handle him more skilfully.” Jeremy turned to me. “If you run again we won’t come after you. We will just visit your family and torch the house. Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

Gilbert jammed his pistol in my ribcage. “Next time I won’t consult that moron,” he whispered to me. “Move your bones!”

 

 

Chapter 12

 

 

“Here we are,” Jeremy declared with a sigh. I was stupefied by the gang’s target. Jeremy accosted me. “Thanks to you Joan is alive. You’ll make her open the door.”

Unbelievable. I had played part in saving Joan’s life less than twenty hours before and now I was back to terrorise her family.

“She won’t do it.”

“You better hope she does,” Jeremy said.

“Just finish the conversation you started up the tree,” Gilbert advised me. “Oh boy, you can really win a girl’s heart!”

“We have richer people in Mung’etho, why not raid them?”

“Their day is coming,” Justin said.

“You will kill me anyway,” I said.

“You might just save her family,” Jeremy said. “Trust you me, you don’t want to know what Plan B entails.”

Of course Plan B entailed a dead Titus Mutuiria. I couldn’t recall ever contemplating my death. Maybe, just maybe I had imagined dying of old age in my sleep. All in all I couldn’t have imagined dying in the hands of such lowlifes. Unknown to my mother, my birth, her effort to make me what I had become were made so that these outlaws could kill me today. Now that the die was cast I could die where I stood or buy some extra breaths.

Gilbert jabbed my ribs with his gun. “Let’s do this.”

Jeremy and Justin remained at the main door while Gilbert marshalled me to the rear of the house.

“One wrong word and I shoot you,” Gilbert said. “Understood?”

“Understood.”

He tapped on the window pane, simultaneously nudging my rib with the pistol. The gang even knew where Joan slept!

“Joan?” I whispered. “Joan?”

“Who is it?” A sleepy voice said.

“Joan, please don’t raise the alarm. It is me, Titus.”

“Titus! What are you doing here at this hour?”

“I had to see you. I couldn’t sleep.”

“What can’t wait till daylight?”

“Are you okay?”

“I am okay.”

“Thank God. I’ve been so worried. Joan, I meant every word on that tree. I know your father disapproves of our affair. You love me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“I love you twice as much.”

“Oh, darling, you say the sweetest things.”

Gilbert stabbed my ribs with his gun.

“Joan, marry me.”

There was a long silence. “Are you nuts?”

“I could be but if madness feels this way, then it is a wonderful thing.”

“You are barely eighteen!”

“My love for you makes me feel thrice as old.”

“We are talking about staying together, raising babies… we are talking marriage and you have nothing!”

“I have love. We have each other. Baby, can you step out we talk about it? Please?”

There was a long pause.

“I can’t.”

“Please don’t say that. Choose your words carefully lest you make my heart stop. Imagine the risk I took coming over.”

“Some decisions are too important to be made in the middle of the night.”

“Darling, choose your words more carefully, please. Why were you suicidal? Why were you doing drugs? It is because our love rubs your father the wrong way, that’s why. Rest you forget, his heart remains unchanged despite all that you have been through. Darling, he will never change. I almost lost you and I can’t let it happen again. We must do something. If we can’t walk through the door we will squeeze through the keyhole. Now is the time.”

There was a long pause. I suspected she was crying.

“Joan?”

Silence.

“Joan?”

“Please go.” Gilbert gored my ribs with the pistol.

“Joan,” I pleaded. “I came because I felt like, you know, like killing myself.”

“What?” she gasped. “You called it a stupid thought, didn’t you? What changed?”

I was losing the argument and I cursed under my breath. “I thought by working so hard to rescue you your father would see me differently. Now you have joined him in ending our relationship.”

“How can you possibly say that?”

“Bye, Joan.”

“Please wait.”

I waited, my heart pounding.

“Titus? Titus?’

“What?

“Give me a moment.”

“Wow! “Gilbert said. “Where did you study courtship?’

We joined Jeremy and Justus at the door. Now I was as good as dead. I knew the identities of the gang and their victims knew me. I have never hated myself so much. I had just betrayed Joan and her family. And to what end? I was dead from the very beginning. If I had refused to cooperate I would have died for something. Now I would die for nothing.

Joan was working on the last latch when I heard Kimotho’s voice. “Joan, is that you?”

“Don’t open!” I shouted.

Gilbert fist rammed against my left cheek so hard I passed out. When I came around I was inside the house and I was gagged. Joan lay unconscious on the floor. Jeremy and Justin stood at the door of what I thought was Joan’s parents’ bedroom.

“I will count up to ten,” Jeremy was saying. “If you don’t come out we will break your daughter’s leg. One, two, three, four, five, six…”

The door swung open and Kimotho and his wife emerged. They were in their pyjamas.

“You!” Kimotho addressed me. Joan came around and stifled a scream.

“As you must have noticed,” Jeremy said, “the Laughing Gang has taken over your impregnable home.” He sank in a sofa and lit a cigarette. He smoked through a hole in his mask. “This should not take time. Your son visited today. We know that he loves his siblings so much he left one hundred thousand for Joan. We want that money. You can be amicable in which case you will surrender the money and return to bed or we can have it the hard way. Make no mistake about it; we won’t leave without the money. What will it be?”

Whenever I raised my head I found myself eye to eye with either Joan or her parents.

“I should warn you,” Kimotho said. “Police are on their way.”

“The police?” Jeremy said. “Heavens, we’re so very frightened, aren’t we guys?”

“We have no money,” Kimotho said.

Jeremy addressed Gilbert and Justin, “You know what to do.”

Gilbert and Justin embarked on turning the house inside out.

“In the meantime I will tell you a story,” Jeremy said. “We once met an adamant family out in Kiaro. Their answer to every question was ‘no money’. I can smell money a mile away. The husband had won lottery or something. Do you know what we did? We put the youngest kid in a sufuria and put it on the burner.”

Joan’s mother began to whimper.

“You don’t come any close to that family,” Jeremy said. “If my associates fail to get the money we will start chopping your daughter into pieces. Evidently we will be putting her out of her misery. Where is the money?”

“I will show you,” Joan’s mother said.

“What are you doing?” Kimotho demanded of his wife.

“Thank you Mum,” Jeremy said. “You should have been my mother.”

Gilbert followed Joan’s mother and returned with a fat envelope.

 

 

Chapter 13

 

 

The gang’s jubilation was cut short by the sound of a vehicle. Justin ran to the window and peeped outside. “Police!”

“I warned you,” Kimotho said displaying a mobile phone. I could not help but marvel at the wizardly of technology. Jeremy grabbed the phone and smashed it on the floor. He killed the lights but the room remained semi-dark thanks to the police car’s headlights.

Justin faced Jeremy. “What do we do now?”

“We stay calm.”

“What? There are policemen out there with guns!”

“If you don’t pull yourself together I’ll kill you myself. Talk to him!”

Gilbert was observing the two from a distance. How I wished they cancelled each other out!

“You are surrounded!” the police said. “You either come out hands raised or we come in guns blazing. You have five minutes!”

“They can’t shoot,” Jeremy said. “We have hostages.”

“We can’t stay here forever,” Gilbert said.

“Then shut up and figure a way out.”

“Your leader is giving you false hope,” Kimotho said. “You better surrender.”

“Don’t tempt me old man,” Jeremy said.

Jeremy leaned against the door as Gilbert calmed his brother down. Joan slithered towards her parents and the three joined hands in prayer. I was undecided as to whether the police were a godsend or a curse. Jeremy was right; the police couldn’t just shoot anyhow. Eliminating the threat without hurting the victims would be hard.

Jeremy jerked suddenly. He stepped forward and yanked Joan’s mother to her feet. Kimotho’s attempt to shield his wife earned him a smack across his face. Jeremy ordered the two brothers to gag Joan and her father as he led Joan’s mother into an inner room. He returned a while later and summoned his accomplices. Their brief meeting over, they ordered us into an inner room. It was pitch-dark here.

Now what? Joan’s whimpering was killing me. There was shuffling and raffling in the dark. The gang’s plan hit me when Gilbert ordered me to put on his uniform. Jeremy and Justin were doing likewise with Kimotho and Joan. Our hands were tied up at the back.

“Unless you want us to kill Joan’s mother you will walk out when we open the door,” Jeremy said. “Titus, it was great working with you. The gang will miss your services.”

I thought of a last-ditch but my mouth was gagged and my hands were tied and I was not James Bond. We were dead, period. It would be hell and brimstones when the police saw the uniform. They would hug and high-five because of a job well done only to realise they had massacred the hostages and that the gang was miles away.

I was in front because I had to die first since I could identify the gang.

“Arms in the air!”

Of course I could not heed the order with tied hands. I expected bullets to rip me apart on stepping out. The headlights of the Land Cruiser blinded me.

“Arms in the air!”

The orders grew more threatening and agitated as we filed out. I wondered what would give in first, my knees or the heart. This was it. After dodging death for seventeen years here it was. I willed my heart to stop to avoid the agony of booming guns and ripping bullets.

My knees gave in and I collapsed to the ground.

God, I am home at last! It is a wonderful place, this home, wonderful place without death.

A heavy boot stepped on my back as the cold barrel of a gun gored my neck. I was rolled over amid a torrent of orders. I mumbled but no voice came out. The muzzle of the gun was inches from my nose.

“He belongs to the gang,” Kimotho was saying. “He tricked my daughter into opening the door!”

My gag was ripped off.

“They forced me,” I said. “It is the truth!”

“Get my mother!” Joan pleaded.

Two of the four officers started for the house with their guns at the ready. A while later they reappeared with Joan’s mother. The Laughing Gang had fled through a trap door.

I was handcuffed and taken to the police post under such guard you got the impression I was a ranking Al Qaeda operative.

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

I spent the better part of Saturday morning distancing myself from the Laughing Gang and any knowledge to their hideout. How I wished ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stood for something! Joan and her mother stood by me but Kimotho wanted to see me suffer. After hours of repetitive questions and threats I was locked up in the cell. Corporal Japheth Mwanzia, one of the interrogating officers, came for me an hour later.

“Guilty or not we must hold you indefinitely,” he said fixing me with his eyes.

“I don’t understand.”

“The gang must be dying to lay their hands on you.”

With their identities in the open the gang would be too busy hiding to mind me. In any case how long would it take the police to arrest the gang, a day, a month, a year?

“I will be okay.”

“You have been here twice in a week,” Mwanzia said. “Don’t come back.”

“I won’t.”

Mother was waiting for me outside the station.

“Why did they let you go?” Mother asked me.

“Mother, I am innocent…”

“The gang will come after you.”

“The gang has enough to worry about,” I said.

“You must be top on their list.”

“Mother, now you are letting fear drive you.”

“You’ll never know how trying it is being your mother.”

“It is not easy being me either,” I said. “I have this bad luck.”

“What if you were shot?”

I would be in that good home. According to the police the gang’s uniforms were too small on Kimotho and too big on Joan and I.

Kimotho glared at us as we walked past his homestead.

“Why is he so hostile?”

“You cost him a hundred thousand,” Mother said. “You nearly cost him his family too.”

“It didn’t start yesterday. He hated Father too.”

Mother took her time before she said, “There was an incident several years ago. Kimotho had a brother, Timothy. The two were orphaned quite young. One day Timothy had a scuffle with another man inside the hotel. Timothy claimed that the man owed him some amount. In the heat of the moment Timothy grabbed a chair and rammed it on the man’s head killing him instantly. Upon his arrest he denied ever being at the hotel. Your father’s testimony sealed his fate.”

“Where is Timothy?”

“He died in jail. Kimotho is a good man but, like all men, he is not infallible.”

So Joan and I were paying for my father’s sins.

 

 

***

Kirari was a thickset, thirty-something man with bloodshot eyes and hair like shrubs on the Kalahari. His carriage reminded one of the independence song kanyanga nchi yako kwa nguvu na raha; springy, confident, unapologetic. His parents were among the first villagers to die of AIDS, his mother having taken her life shortly after her husband’s demise.

I entered Al Hotel and beckoned to the waiter for a cup of tea. I couldn’t take my mind off Kirari. Was he and Boza one and the same person? Did he kill Jimmy? Did he claim our cow? Was he to blame for the stoned youths? I could not rest easy with so many un-answered questions troubling my mind. In the middle of it all was my promise to my mother that I would stay out of trouble.

Staying out of trouble is not synonymous to doing nothing, I told myself.

Kirari was a famed orchardist thanks to his father who had planted various fruits on the two-acre farm. He was also the proud owner of a pack of very fierce dogs. The unkempt Kei apple hedge that constricted the narrow road further and the dogs suggested something to hide. Jeremy had said to check Kirari out. Approaching him to buy bhang would certainly raise the red flag.

I left Al Hotel at seven. The one kilometre journey to Kirari’s homestead was a long one as I oscillated between proceeding and abandoning my plan. You should be painting or sleeping, anything but this. The adventurous side of me would have none of it. You love mysteries and Boza is the ultimate prize. The gathering darkness was soothing and reassuring. By the time I came to the far end of Kirari’s farm I had an idea. I doubled back to the huge jacaranda tree on the adjacent farm whose branches spread to intertwine with those of a croton tree on Kirari’s farm.

Mother, I’ll stay out of trouble. I promise. I won’t do much. I’ll only take a look.

I worked my way up the jacaranda beseeching my guardian angel to be extra vigilant today. I was halfway across the road when I heard approaching voices. I froze. Darkness had become my closest ally. The two men heading for the shopping centre were directly below me when some coins slipped from my pocket and hit one of them. I had to chuckle as the two scuttled off.

Upon landing on the farm I produced my penlight. It was rows upon rows of oranges, avocadoes, lemons and paw paws. What caught my attention were smaller plants with serrate leaflets similar to those of khaki weed only that they were wider. The sound of barking dogs made my heart beat faster. I cut some twigs, stuffed them in my pocket, dashed to the croton tree and worked my way up the fastest I could. I was midway up the trunk when the dogs arrived. For a long moment I was afraid to climb rest I slipped.

When I heard Kirari calling his dogs I hurried up the tree.

 

***

 

Njorua was in his room when I arrived home. I handed him the twigs which he studied with interest.

“What the hell…? Where did you get these?”

“Kirari,” I said.

Njorua dropped on his bed and studied me for a long moment. “What now?”

“I don’t know. The chief promised zero tolerance to drugs.”

“Do you believe him?” Njorua shook his head. “Do you think you are the first person to discover Kirari grows bhang?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“A crime that carries on for years has the blessings of the authorities.”

Njorua had a point. It had taken me less than twenty minutes to get the twigs. How long would it take someone in authority?

“What are you suggesting?” I asked.

“Let Kirari be.”

“Are we seriously having this conversation? Boza killed Jimmy and almost killed you!”

“I know,” Njorua said. “He is that bad and that is why you should leave him alone. Have you considered the potential blowback? What if the police are on Kirari’s payroll? What if Kirari and Boza are different persons? If Boza can kill because of a debt what will he do for attacking his business? The loss of the cow affected us all. We have moved on, you should too.”

Njorua’s argument was sound. Nevertheless, Kirari was not the type of guy you wish good health and long life. He had to be brought to book somehow.

“I can’t stop now,” I said. “I intercepted Boza’s note.”

“You did what? Where is the note?”

“Jeremy destroyed it.”

The following day I visited Mutongoria at his home and informed him about Kirari. I made him promise he won’t divulge his source.

 

Chapter 15

 

 

The two angels were all smiles, their tiny hands pointing to the high, bright heavens. My father, himself with a pair of wings, brought up the rear. His bright smile said it all: he was happy with his job on earth and was ready for life hereafter.

“Amazing!”

I turned to see Mutongoria admiring the painting. Anyone would have been arrested by the wizardly, true bright colours and I let him feast his eyes the best way he could. It was my best effort this far.

“Did you ever attend painting classes?” the chief asked.

“I didn’t.” His eyes oscillated between me and the painting.

“You must be very talented.”

“Thank you.”

We fell silent.

“He was a great man.”

“The greatest,” I said.

The chief fixed me with his gaze. “There was no bhang.”

I thought I did not hear him right. “What did you say?”

“The guy has avocadoes, oranges, lemons…,”

“Is this some kind of a joke? I brought you…,”

“I know what you brought me and I know what I saw on the farm. There was no bhang.”

My mind was racing. I recalled Njorua asking me whether I could trust Mutongoria. I doubted there was any search at all. His promise to fight drugs was but hot air.

“When did you visit the farm?” I asked.

“Today in the morning. Could you have visited a different farm?”

I shook my head. “How was the land?”

“It was freshly tilled.”

“All of it?”

“Some parts,” Mutongoria said. “What you are trying to do is very dangerous. You are industrious. Indeed, you mirror my youth.”

Oh no, he couldn’t possibly mean that, not after dumping my mother when she got pregnant. Did he mean I was so irresponsible?

“I understand your situation,” he went on. “You just lost your father and…”

“I know what I saw.”

“Leave police work to the police,” Mutongoria said and left.

Njorua joined me. “What did he want?”

“He thinks I beat Picasso hands down,” I said.

“I overheard your conversation,” Njorua said. “I told you he cannot be trusted.”

I stared at Njorua wishing I had heeded his warning. It now looked like I had set out to fell a fig tree with a razor blade. Would Kirari come after me?

“You will be late for the funeral,” Mother said emerging from the house.

I covered the painting because I did not want her to see it until it was done. I stored my tools and accompanied my mother to Jimmy’s burial.

The funeral was nearly as big as that of my father. Whereas mourners attended Father’s send-off to pay homage we were here to express our wrath. Why would anyone sentence so young a boy to such a painful death? Was there no respect for human life anymore? Jimmy’s photograph sat on a three-by-two feet coffin, his innocent smile accusing us all. Where were we when he was being introduced to drugs? Did it mean we could only find time for him when he was beyond helping?

Speaker after speaker demanded justice for Jimmy. As the Mutongoria spoke I couldn’t help admiring his expertise at window dressing.

The gloomy songs had found some use again. It shall be a wonderful place, that home, wonderful place without death.

 

***

 

I was at Al Hotel when Njorua walked into the call box. Another catch-up session with his mother, I told myself. I was so lost in keeping time on Njorua’s call I didn’t see Kirari walk into the hotel. He sat across my table studying me, a sly smile dancing on his lips. He knew I had been to his farm and I was supposed to be afraid. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid.

Kirari surprised me with fervent clapping.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you?”

“Rumour had it that I grow bhang. My friend, you’ve rested the rumour.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kirari fished out a thousand shillings note, signalled the waiter and handed it to him.

“His bill. Keep change.”

The waiter was as stupefied as I was.

“I satisfy a need, you know,” Kirari told me. “Believe you me, I have a huge following. If anything I deserve a pat in the back. When you see a man laughing, when you see a man working hard maybe I had a hand in it. You see, God created tea leaves, kale and yes, bhang. Have you ever asked yourself why? Probably not and if you have, you came up with the wrong answer, just like a lot of people have. Those who know what is good for them embrace the herb. The police gain from it. Some countries have already legalised it. Why does it pinch you?”

“You’ve destroyed a whole generation,” I said.

“I have never forced anyone to smoke. Besides if I don’t supply them someone else will. They are busy trying to edge me out but I am a better businessman.”

“Why did you kill Jimmy?”

Kirari’s eyes clouded. “Why would I kill Jimmy?”

“Perhaps we will understand each other better if I you switched from being Kirari to being Boza.”

I took the narrowing of the bloodshot eyes as evidence that I had touched a raw nerve.

“You are high on something worse than bhang,” Kirari said. “If you want trouble you came to the right person.”

Kirari walked out with his springiest gait. I stormed out of the hotel and into the chief’s office. Mutongoria was preparing to leave.

“You promised not to reveal my name!” I exploded.

“Come down. What’s going on?”

“Kirari has just threatened me!”

Mutongoria seemed genuinely surprised that I was bringing up the issue.

“I kept my word.”

“Did you hear me? Kirari has just threatened me!”

“Could he have seen you?”

“He didn’t. If anything happens to me it is on you!”

I have never hated anyone so much. I left the small office feeling murderous. Njorua’s observation that a crime that carries on for years has the authorities’ blessings made perfect sense now.

 

 

Chapter 16

 

 

If only you had let Kirari be you wouldn’t be listening to crickets snore. No sound passed my ears. If only Njorua knew of Kirari’s threat he would not have been snoring so loudly next door. Not that I could do much if Kirari struck but I could not afford to be caught unawares. The thought of waking up to a burning house was enough to keep my eyes open. I imagined myself screaming as fire consumed me and everyone gave up on me because they were not trained fire fighters and there were no fire fighting equipment in Mung’etho and the fire was so invincible. I imagined my mother screaming her heart out and threatening to toss herself in the fire. I imagined my funeral; my photo sitting on a coffin; the gloomy songs marking the occasion; Mutongoria promising tough action against drug pushers. Damn, why did I pursue Kirari? Why did I ignore Njorua’s advice? Now I understood why everyone was furious but nobody lifted a finger. Nobody could afford to live in such numbing fear.

At three my heart nearly stopped as I heard ruffling outside. I wailed only for the wind to blow so hard the roof rattled. Njorua, the closest human being, continued to snore like a stuck caterpillar.

I fell asleep at five hoping to sleep all day in preparation for a sleepless night. My mother woke me up at eleven demanding to know why I was still asleep. At one I slipped the spare kitchen knife under my jacket and hit the road because Mother had become a real bother and I could not confide in her. I kept constant company hoping that in so doing Kirari would hesitate to strike. I had always believed I could walk away any day but now that the situation demanded it I had nowhere to go.

I was so preoccupied I almost run into Mother who stood at the gate.

“Have you seen Sarah?” she asked.

“No, why?”

“She has not arrived from school.”

“She could be visiting a friend.”

“At eight in the night?”

“I am sure she has a good reason for being late,” Antonnina said joining us.

“Let’s go find her,” Mother said.

“You can’t leave me alone,” Antonnina said.

“We won’t be long,” Mother said leading the way out of the compound.

Peninah, Sarah’s best friend, lived four homesteads from ours. She told us that she had left Sarah cleaning the classroom.

“Does she have a boyfriend?” Mother asked as we left for Mung’etho Secondary School.

“Sarah? I don’t think so.”

“What is on your mind?”

“This is not the Sarah I know.”

“You are not the Titus I know either.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are uncharacteristically laidback.”

“Mother, Sarah is missing.”

“You have been acting strange all day.”

The guard at the gate assured us that nobody was within the school compound. He had signed in at six hence his inability to give anything tangible.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Mother said. “We should report to the police.”

“We should check whether she has arrived home,” I said.

No one spoke as we hurried home. When we got there the door to the main house was locked.

“Who is there?” Antonnina asked.

“Has Sarah arrived?” I asked her.

“No.”

Njorua arrived just then.

“Where the hell have you been?” Mother asked him.

“Why? Is there a problem?”

“Have you seen Sarah?”

“No. What’s going on?”

Antonnina updated her brother hastily.

“Time to report to the police,” Mother said.

Njorua pulled me aside. “Could he be responsible?”

“Who?”

“Boza.”

“What are you talking about?” My heart was threatening to break free. Could Boza…? Could he…?

“What the hell is that?” Njorua dashed to the door to my room and plucked off a piece of paper that was held in place by cello tape. He switched on his penlight and read the note.

 

I have Sarah. If you want her alive get a million shillings by March 16th. If you involve the police she dies. Boza.

 

Mother collapsed and Antonnina embarked on resuscitating her.

Njorua charged at me. “I warned you, didn’t I? I told you to leave Boza alone! Do you feel better now?”

“You introduced Boza or whatever his name is into our lives!” I said.

“It was my mess until we paid him off. Then you decided to pour petrol into the fire.”

“Shut the hell up and give me a hand!” Antonnina said.

 

 

 

***

 

I know why people jump from rooftops. I know why the brain, just like an over speeding vehicle round the bend, decides to go bananas. I was like a football being kicked back and forth. The situation reminded me of ‘equator’, a game we used to play while young. The idea was to pass the ball between your opponent’s legs while denying them the chance to do likewise. Anyone unfortunate enough to have the ball pass through their ‘equator’ was roughed up. The rough-up was called nyala. During nyala is when anyone with scores to settle did their thing. Mother, Njorua and Antonnina created the impression that they had been gearing up to this moment for ages and, I must confess, they were good at nyala. Njorua was particularly out to give me an ulcer.

Everyone in Mung’etho knew that we had no money, not to mention a million shillings. Father’s illness had squeezed us so dry his funeral was only made possible by well-wishers. Who would ask for so much against Sarah’s life? Could Kirari be so arrogant as to kidnap Sarah a day after his threat? Did Kirari’s partnership with the police involve kidnappings or was the warning not to engage the authorities exonerate the police? Were Kirari and Boza one and the same person? If Boza was different from Kirari and was reacting to the intercepted note how did he know I was responsible? Did Njorua talk? How much bhang warranted a kidnapping? So many things were wrong with the whole picture.

Boza was coming across as an enterprising character who surcharged a kilometre for every inch taken. I had only confiscated a damn note for heaven’s sake! If the point of collection was unique to each user as Njorua had claimed then the ten rolls of bhang were still in place.

Now I had a bigger reason to unveil Boza – or to let him be.

Mother convened a meeting at ten in the morning. The meeting had two agenda: to contain news about the kidnapping and to get Sarah back home. Addressing the first item was easy since only the four of us knew of the kidnapping. We all pledged to keep it that way by not sharing information about the kidnapping and covering for Sarah’s absence. We needed a diversion before anyone became curious. Antonnina’s idea that Sarah had been taken ill and was admitted at Kiaro General Hospital fitted the bill. The second item on the agenda was not so easy to tackle. The only way we could raise a million shillings was by selling off our land. I had no idea of the market value of land; we probably had to sell the two acres. And there lay the quagmire since Father had bequeathed each one of us equally.

“We all know what Titus did,” Mother started. “If crucifying him will bring Sarah home I would do it single-handedly. The situation is dire but not insurmountable. Only the other day Njorua was in a similar predicament but we came through standing tall. We lost a cow but we preserved his life which is priceless. We will survive this and every other tribulation not because we are rich but because we have each other. Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Let’s spare Sarah a thought because, as it were, her fate is in our hands. It could be you, it could be me.”

“We’re down to our last penny,” Njorua said.

“We can sell the farm,” I said.

“We can do what?” Njorua shot to his feet. “How can you possibly contemplate that?”

“You cost us the cow!”

“There is the cow and then there is the land!” Antonnina said.

“It isn’t about the cow or the land but Sarah’s life!” I said. “You asked me if I would rather have Njorua dead, would you rather have Sarah dead?”

“How shall we survive?”Antonnina glared at me. “Where shall we go?”

“There is always a way,” Mother said.

Njorua dropped on his seat as an overbearing silence fell round the table. Problems curiously cemented us together and I could tell that we were all reading from the same page. Giving up their share of inheritance was not easy, but so was letting Sarah die.

“I will forever be grateful for bailing me out,” Njorua said. “Nonetheless, you are asking too much of us, I mean, look at my sister. We need the land.”

“You are forcing us to pick between two impossible choices here,” Antonnina said.

I banged the table in anger. “Sarah is about to die for heaven’s sake!”

“I am sorry,” Antonnina said.

“Me too,” Njorua said.

I was dazed as the two left the room.

Mother’s slap caught me unawares. She stormed her bedroom and slammed the door.

 

 

Chapter 17

 

By the time I stepped into Mung’etho Secondary School my confidence was so withered I was tempted to abandon my mission. I was here to lie not because I was the best liar, but Antonnina was eight months pregnant, Mother was too broken down and Njorua was as unpredictable as a baby’s bottom. I dreaded a face to face with the school principal who was famed to read minds like an open book.

Memories of my thirst for freedom months earlier revisited me. As a student I had yearned for a life without the bell or the teacher; a life of being where and when I wanted to be, doing what and how I wanted to do it. Upon sitting the last paper we made a bonfire from our exercise books. We called it graduation from earning marks to earning money. Now, barely a year after, my freedom was about to decimate my family.

Luck was on my side as I saw Madam Tabitha coming from Sarah’s classroom. I ran after her and lied straight to her face.

“According to the night guard you were here looking for Sarah,” the teacher said.

“She found Njorua home who took her to the health centre without alerting the rest of us,” I said.

“How is she?”

“She is not that bad,” I said with a forced smile, “just a troublesome appendix. She should be okay in a day or two.”

The moment Madam Tabitha started for the staffroom my legs told me to bolt. Damn, I should have had the bicycle. Relief swept over me when I stepped out of the compound. I could not help it anymore and I started running.

“How did it go?” Njorua asked when I arrived home.

“Smooth. Can I have a word?”

“Sure.”

“I should apologise for my stubbornness,” I said. “As my elder I should have heeded your advice. I put Sarah in danger and it is only reasonable to expect me to bring her home. However, much as I want to, I can’t. Lying awake last night I found myself envying Sarah’s big heart. One day she asked me why I aspired to be a painter. ‘It is my passion,’ I answered without much thought. ‘Why don’t you become a doctor or a policeman, an occupation through which you can be of greater service to the society?’ I laughed my lungs out. Here she was, young, naïve and ignorant of how the world works. Aren’t we supposed to pull our way, get rich, become famous, and make history? Isn’t everyone for themselves and God for us all?”

A kid from the neighbourhood stopped at the gate to dance. He realised fast that his antics were not in demand today and resumed his journey.

“The other day you sent me to my mother. Today Sarah has sent me to you. You know her fears because you’ve looked death in the eye. We shouldn’t dwell on returning favours or such stuff. Think about an innocent, helpless girl whose next breath, or lack of it, depends on you. It is not about what she can or can’t do for you; think of what you can do for her. This shouldn’t be about love or hate but avoiding another death. Hopefully you will get rich and buy acres and acres of land. Then you will look back and wonder whether rescuing Sarah was such an impossible sacrifice. You will regret for the rest of your life because there will be no chance to make it right. That is exactly why I voted in favour of selling the cow. And that is why we must save Sarah.”

Silence took over. I had said a mouthful yet I felt I had said nothing. Having fought many fights with my step-brother I wondered what it would take to win him over. There were numbered instances when we pulled in one direction.

“I knew you would give me such a mouthful,” Njorua said with disdain. “You are begging me to say no again. Damn you. She voted against!”

“I am sorry for that.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it. I was one step in the grave!”

“Will she die because she expressed her will?” I was losing my temper now. “Why vote if one can only choose one way? Whatever happened to forgiveness?”

“Why is forgiveness so important when I am the one doing it? Your mother may sing on rooftops but truth be told, we are not a family. We never were. And now, just when I was about to have it my way you press me to give it up. Do you know what you are asking for? You are asking me to give up a life so that someone else can live. Damn you. Do I look like Mother Teresa to you?”

Njorua’s speech and subsequent departure triggered off such a rush of adrenalin in my bloodstream I could have broken into a goddamn bank to get the money. Mother emerged from the house and sat on the doorway. She always put on a headscarf but today her hair ran wild. I could not stand her sorry sight and I walked out of the compound.

 

Chapter 18

 

 

The mind registers the passage of time based upon the prevalent circumstances. December is but a blink of an eye whereas January lasts a lifetime. When you can’t make headway time flies faster than a bullet. In our case it wasn’t just a state of mind; we had five days to raise a million shillings.

Two Sundays earlier the preacher had narrated about a barren woman who bought baby clothes every nine months. She conceived in the third year so that when the ninth month came she bought garments for a real kid. The preacher called it ‘active hope.’

You need such hope, I told myself.

I went straight to Al Hotel. As usual Alfred was doing his best to avoid me. I hated his guts but he was among the few people who could get a million shillings fast enough. I beckoned to him but he sent a waiter over. I sent the waiter back with a message. Alfred came and sat across the table.

“What do you want?” Alfred demanded.

“To sell you some land.”

“Since when did you have land to sell?”

“Since my father died,” I said.

“Is this a joke?”

“Am I laughing?”

Alfred regarded me for a long moment. “What size for how much?”

“Two acres for a million and a half,” I had conducted a quick survey of land value in the area.

“Two acres for…?” Alfred got on his feet. “Find someone else.”

“Make me an offer.”

“One million.”

“One point two.”

Alfred reoccupied his chair, his eyes fixed on mine. “When?”

“I will confirm soon.”

“Why would you want to sell it?”

“Our land, our choice,” I said. “By the way, congratulations.”

Alfred’s face clouded. “For what?”

“For being a father again.” His wife had just walked in.

“Does she look pregnant to you?”

“Of course not. But Violet does.”

Alfred, an illiterate, once requested me to write Violet, his mistress.

“Does she know?”

Alfred was squirming now. He shot a waiter who was approaching him a be-warned look.

“Relax,” I said. “As long as our conversation stays between us you have nothing to worry about.”

“I don’t understand. It is your land, your choice.”

“It is also my choice that the matter stays between us.”

“You have my word,” Alfred put his hand across the table which connected with mine. He lifted his bulk and strolled away.

I was about to leave when this boy appeared at my table.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he sounded intimidated. “I am Kush. You didn’t attend the meeting.”

“What meeting?”

His smile was disarming. “The day NACADA visited us we, the youths of Mung’etho, decided to join hands to fight drugs. I was Mr. No Drugs in Mung’etho.”

“Congratulations. You can do this, huh?” I articulated some break-dance moves.

“Not as masterfully as your girlfriend.”

I had a closer look at Kush. How come he knew so much about me yet I had never seen him?

“We had a meeting the following day.”

“The meeting that I missed,” I said.

“You didn’t miss much. We formed Mung’etho Youth against Drug Abuse Initiative.”

I wanted to ask Kush whether he was visiting everyone who didn’t attend the meeting but said, “Why does it feel like I am talking to the chair?”

“They forced me to be the chair,” Kush said smiling. “Anyway, we agreed to spread the word.”

My mind travelled to Boza and Kirari. “How do you plan to fight drugs?”

“That constitutes the agenda for the next meeting. Nobody can understand us, the youths, I mean, the way we understand each other. If a solution exists it will come from us. We will initiate projects that can benefit us and push the government to fund them. Above all we must hold the authorities to account in regard to the fight against drugs and illicit brews.”

“You were cut out for the job.”

“I am a reformed addict,” Kush said.

“Really? When is the next meeting?”

“Tomorrow at God’s Church.”

“Count me in. How come we have never met before?”

“I grew up in Kiaro. We moved here last year following my father’s retirement. I have known you for a while now.”

“Is that so?”

“You see, eh, Sarah is my friend.”

So that was it. My absence at the meeting was a rounder-about way of addressing more personal issues. It came as a surprise that Sarah had a boyfriend, well, assuming that Kush was her boyfriend. Kush didn’t seem a bad choice. He was tall and handsome, probably seventeen.

“Is it true that Sarah was taken ill?”

I hesitated a moment too long. “Who told you that?”

“Someone who heard it from Njorua,” Kush said.

For a moment I wondered what had prompted Njorua to talk about Sarah.

“Sarah has been complaining about her appendix for some time,” I said.

“She was in perfect health when I walked her from school on Tuesday.”

“All the way home?”

“No, two homesteads to your home.”

“What time?”

“Six thirty. Hey, why are you asking all these questions?”

“She is my sister. Think of me as her bodyguard.”

“She is safe with me,” Kush said.

“She is safe concentrating on her studies.”

So the kidnapper had seized Sarah close home.

“Is she home?”

Kush was a complication. He was already aggressive and I could understand his position. No one loves mysteries as far as their sweetheart is concerned. But then I could not tell him the truth.

I shook my head.

“Where is she admitted? I would like to visit her.”

“Your concern is much appreciated but this is a family matter. If you will excuse me I have to run.”

Kush stopped me in protest but I was already out of Al Hotel.

 

Chapter 19

 

 

Antonnina was doing utensils when I arrived home.

“You should go easy on yourself,” I said pointing at her tummy. “Allow me.”

“Thank goodness you are here,” she said stepping aside. “What with all the insecurity.”

“How are you holding up?”

“As Father would say, it could be worse.”

“I am so proud of you for sparing the baby.”

“You will never know the pain of carrying evidence of rape.”

“Some fortunes don the face of misfortunes,” I said. “You could be carrying a future president.”

“Say that again! My mother thinks I should offer the kid for adoption. The more I think about it the more the idea appeals to me.”

“I hope whatever you do is in the best interests of the kid.”

“Adoption would delink the kid from the circumstances of his conception. They vet adopters, don’t they?”

“I think they do.”

“Have you traced Sarah?” Antonnina asked.

“No. Paying the ransom is the only way out.”

“There is always a way out. You are the most resourceful person I know.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence but I am resigned on this one. Look where my resourcefulness landed us.”

“Selling the land is a scarily proposition.”

“Sarah’s death is scarier.”

I rinsed the last sufuria.

“In case you plan anything count me in.”

I stared at Antonnina. “Any action other than paying the ransom means Sarah’s death.”

We fell silent.

“Do you think she is within Mung’etho?” Antonnina asked.

“There is no way of telling.”

“Do you really think we can pull through without the land?”

“It would be tough, no need to lie about it. Nonetheless a lot of people never had land yet they survive. The situation demands extraordinary sacrifices.”

“You must think Njorua wants her dead,” she said. “He loves her.”

Why won’t he prove it? “I hope he comes around.”

“Is there any assurance of getting Sarah back if the ransom is paid?”

“No,” I said. “But she will surely die if the ransom is not paid.”

My heart was threatening to break free. Was Antonnina contemplating what I thought she was contemplating?

“I will talk to my brother.”

My heart stopped before it began beating perilously. “You mean…?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank me when Njorua listens to me. I doubt he will.”

I was afraid that dwelling on Sarah could rollback the gains made so far. I carried the utensils to the house saying a silent prayer.

“What are we having for dinner?” I asked Antonnina. “Can I push for my favourite?”

“Rice and beans?”

“Mmmmm. I am already salivating.”

“You know I hate beans.”

“My teacher said beans are beef in a different form and taste.”

“My teacher said form and taste matters.”

“Did he?” I said. “Then we can describe his friendship with money as ‘close’ which, unfortunately, is not the case with me. This is what I’ll do. I’ll dash to the shopping centre for your favourite.”

Antonnina brightened up. “You mean beef?”

“Do you have another?”

“How can I?”

Our conversation had re-energised me so that I was back within half an hour with half kilo of beef. We embarked on preparing supper.

“Team TA hoyee!” I said remembering days gone by. To nurture tolerance and interaction in the family Father had paired me with Antonnina in the kitchen whereas Njorua teamed up with Sarah. Ours became Team TA, Team Titus and Antonnina in full, whereas Team NS was Njorua and Sarah.

“Team TA hoyee!” Antonnina said.

Supper was ready by eight. We were all at the table for the first time since the kidnapping. No word was exchanged for nearly ten minutes.

“Hurry up we vote,” Antonnina, the first to clear her plate, said.

My hand stopped midway to my mouth. Mother was dazed.

“Vote to what?” Njorua asked.

In answer Antonnina tore four pieces of paper and handed one to each.

“Vote to what?” Njorua repeated his question.

“To rescue Sarah,” Antonnina said.

“Are you out of your mind?” Njorua demanded. “You will be a mother in a month.”

“Sarah will be long dead,” Antonnina charged.

“Can we talk in private?”

“My mind is made,” Antonnina said jotting on his ballot. Mother and I followed suit. I wished the exercise was done with already. Njorua studied the three of us for a long moment, shook his head and wrote on his ballot.

Antonnina read out the votes.

It was a unanimous ‘YES.’

For a long moment I felt like crying. Mother looked like she was rousing from a bad dream. She cupped her face in her hands and when she raised her head a tear fell clear from her left eye.

“I cannot thank you enough,” Mother said. “I will never forget what you just did.”

“I have a buyer,” I declared.

“How much?” Antonnina asked.

“One million two hundred thousand.”

“Can’t we get more?” Njorua asked.

“Time is not on our side,” I said. “There is a slight complication. Sarah has a boyfriend.”

“Who?” Njorua asked.

“Kush. His family moved in last year.”

“Who is the buyer?’ Njorua asked.

“Alfred.”

“We should allocate the excess cash to my sister,” Njorua said.

“We can use it to start afresh,” I said.

Njorua jumped to his feet. “If the excess cash is not allocated to Antonnina you can forget it.”

“Done,” Mother said.

“Thank you,” Antonnina said.

The two walked out of the room.

“You’ve become an astute negotiator,” Mother said. “What did you tell her?”

The same question was troubling me. I expected Antonnina to vote in favour and Njorua to vote against. His vote contrasted sharply with his sentiments the previous day. But then he had had time to digest the situation. Again, the little I had told Njorua and Antonnina was possibly enough to win them over.

“I think they don’t want Sarah’s blood on their hands,” I said.

“Sarah voted against bailing Njorua out.”

“Mother, people change. Whatever the reason, this is good.”

 

 

 

Chapter 20

 

I woke up to find a note stuck on my door. I reached for it with trembling hands. It read thus:

 

Drop the money at the windmill on Winsor Ranch on Saturday at 8 pm. Boza.

 

I read the note again and again wondering how we would get Sarah back. Damn, I should have waylaid the bastard. He had kidnapped Sarah right outside our compound and had been at my doorstep twice. Granted this was his last communiqué. I jolted as a realisation hit me: Boza had taken a day back! Why would he do that? Was he privy to our agreement to sell the land? If so, how did he know?

I camped outside my room deep in thought. Njorua emerged from his room at eight. He stretched, yawned and stamped his feet simultaneously.

“I just can’t figure out how you prevailed over Antonnina,” Njorua said. “Enlighten me, please.”

“She is compassionate.”

“Compassionate, huh?”

“We’ve just lost a day,” I handed him the note. He read it quickly.

“Where did you get this?”

“It was stuck on my door.”

“Damn! Who does Boza think he is? Do you still think it is Kirari?”

“I don’t know what to think. We have moneyed guys around, why couldn’t they grab their kids? Why didn’t they grab me instead?”

Njorua studied me closely. “This is too crazy for my foggy mind. I’ll grab some muguka.”

“This early?”

“It is never too early to have muguka. I already feel like a trespasser in this place.”

“We need to confirm the sale,” I said. “Is one o’clock okay?”

“You will find me there.”

Njorua strolled out of the compound.

To the villagers selling land was enough evidence of an empty head. Land sellers were a hated lot and only earned praise from whores and drinking friends – that is, as long as the proceeds lasted. Land was believed to be sacred and selling it was considered accursed. Death forgot land sellers as if to give them ample time to suffer. There was one Kagunda who sold his six acre parcel and flew to the coast with two damsels. He returned after two weeks, penniless. He could not stand the reality so he decided dying was the honourable thing to do. He went for it twice. The first time the branch broke, the second the rope gave in; dying was hard. Father had designed his will to prevent us from selling the land. Now selling it was like a finishing line everyone wanted to touch first. Events were dictating our steps and the line between right and wrong was a blur. We had lied. I had even arm-twisted Alfred. Only the necessary mattered.

I studied the notes in an attempt to understand their author. God was so privileged he saw it all. Why did He allow evil men to thrive? Were they not ripe for hell? I lingered on the final note as if expecting more information to appear. How would we get Sarah back? The handwriting made me jolt to a sitting position. My heart was threatening to break free as I spread the three notes on my bed. The one about collection of ten rolls of bhang and the one announcing the kidnapping were written in quick and messy hand with looped f s and l s. The one giving location for the drop was in a neat and round handwriting. It could only mean that at least two people were behind the kidnapping. I remembered one of my teachers who claimed that females were neater writers. I had dismissed her as a feminist but what if she was right? Then it meant that one of the kidnappers was a man and the other a woman. The spelling was perfect, so was spacing. The diction was far from elementary. All these suggested that the two had gone through secondary school.

Now that the notes were talking I decided to get the whole message. I ran to the near-by kiosk and bought a cold Coke and settled in my room to scrutinize them fully. An hour later I had come to some conclusions. Either the man’s handwriting was bad or it was an attempt to disguise his actual handwriting. In the woman’s note the dots on ‘i’ were properly put on top while in the man’s the same appeared two letters away.

I joined my mother in the sitting room.

“You need to see this,” I said. “I was studying the notes and guess what I discovered.”

“What?”

“The notes were written by two persons, a man and a woman.”

I had expected some excitement but Mother regarded me coldly.

“Will you ever learn? You put us in a hole and you are still digging deeper. We will sell the land, period. I don’t want anyone to do anything. Are we clear?”

I hesitated.

“Are we clear?”

I nodded.

“Give me the notes.”

I took two steps backwards. “You don’t have to destroy them.”

“It is my daughter’s life on the line. To be honest, I can’t trust you or anyone on this one. I know you. When you put your mind to something no mountain is too big to climb, no road is too rough to trek. But there is no lion which cannot miss a chase. As your mother I implore you, I beg you to embrace defeat this time. Promise me you will let the matter rest.”

“I promise.”

As I stepped out I almost stumbled on Antonnina who was sitting on the veranda writhing in pain. I called Mother and we supported her to a chair. I took a piece of cloth and began fanning her. Mother brought a cup of water which she drunk generously.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“I just felt dizzy. More water please.”

“It is a common occurrence when you’re this close,” Mother said.

“You should see a doctor.”

“I am okay.”

“I insist,” I said.

“All I need is some sleep.”

Antonnina disappeared into her room.

 

 

 

Chapter 21

 

 

On my way to the shopping centre I ran into Joan’s father outside his gate. I had no business with him so I just walked past. I was not sure I wanted his daughter in my life either.

“If one knows thee not or a blind man scolds thee, do not become angry.”

I stopped and faced Kimotho.

“I am talking to you,” he said. “You have every right to be angry with me.”

We sized up each other like two bulls which are tired of fighting.

“I know about Timothy,” I said. “I think it should be the wrongdoer on the cross, not the witness.”

Kimotho’s face creased.

“Son, with time you will know that truth is a cagey commodity.”

“Facts are not cagey and here is one: every man is capable of doing evil.”

The respected church elder was not used to being reprimanded. I expected him to explode but, to my surprise, he smiled.

“Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”

I hesitated as Kimotho started into his compound. Was he signalling a truce? It would have been rude to walk away so I followed him. His wife was delighted to see me.

“Timothy was the father I never had,” Kimotho said after his wife had served us tea. “In him I saw an embodiment of virtues; honesty, integrity, courtesy, name it. He taught me the graciousness of truth and the idiocy of falsehood. I embraced religion in the hope that it would elevate me to his level. But now, so many years after, a young man has a new lesson for me: every man is capable of doing evil. Wow! Timothy denied ever stepping in your father’s hotel on the material day. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I could be stuck in the ‘once upon a time’ days when men and women strove to be virtuous. Of course we are living in trying times. We can take as long as we need to debate on the morality of my actions – or yours for that matter. But we have a rather immediate task. I love my little girl. Your actions say you do too. I was afraid you actually wanted her dead on that day. I have never seen so much creativity. Thank you for bringing her back to me. Let us help her get on her feet again.”

“Did you really think I am a member of the Laughing Gang?”

The smile reappeared.

“As you rightly put it, every man is capable of doing evil. The gang suggested you were a member. I didn’t know what to believe.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“I am sure they had a Plan B,” Kimotho said. “I hope they change their bad ways sooner than later. My heart bleeds for your generation for thinking that the world owes you a living. You detest hard work yet you want instant riches. In the end you die young. That to me is the greatest tragedy. I must laud your breaking away from the crowd. You should know that I am very mean when it comes to praising other people.”

“You flatter me.”

“It is the truth.”

“And truth is a cagey commodity.”

“Don’t make me swear,” Kimotho was hurt. “Oh, forgive my bad manners of keeping guests to myself. Joan?”

My heart began to race. While it was important that Kimotho stopped torturing anyone for my father’s sins, real or perceived, I did not think it was right for him to act as a go-between for me and Joan. I needed time to cool down. I strongly believed that some time apart would do as both a lot of good.

Joan appeared from an inner room looking splendid in a kitenge. Her father walked out.

“How are you holding up?” I said.

“I am good,” Joan said. “I have you to thank for everything.”

“You have luck to thank for everything. I was on my way out.”

Joan gave me that smile which gave me sleepless nights. But today it had neither promise nor warmth.

“Me too. The youth meeting is an hour away.”

I had forgotten the meeting. “Let’s go then.”

I bid Joan’s parents farewell and we started for the shopping centre.

“How is the new me?”

Joan asked.

“Splendid,” I said.

“It has been crazy.”

“I know.” The fact was I did not want to know. I didn’t care.

“I won a no-drugs contest because I was high on drugs,” Joan said. “Awkward, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

“Is it true that Sarah is sick?”

I had forgotten about Sarah momentarily. “It is nothing serious. How did you know?”

“It is a small village.”

“According to Jeremy your brother had left you the money.”

“Simeon promised us seed money on completing school. Susan operates a saloon in Nairobi after a course in beauty therapy. James runs a cyber cafe in Thika.”

“Were you expecting him on that day?”

“No,” Joan said. “Titus, am I losing you?”

“We shouldn’t go there.”

“Am I?”

“Look, things have been happening too fast I need to find my footing.”

“You confessed your love for me in front of my parents. Was it just pretence?”

I stopped and faced her. “You need time to recover. So is our relationship.”

“I am prepared to change. Do you doubt me?”

“Do you doubt yourself?”

She tried hard to hold my eye but she failed. “My father invited some counsellors from the church and I agreed to undergo rehabilitation. Actually I only need to think of losing you to reform. I choose life.”

“That is the spirit.”

When we got to the shopping centre I excused myself promising to join Joan at Mung’etho God’s Church. Njorua was already in Al Hotel. Our meeting with Alfred was brief since we were just confirming the deal. Alfred promised to be ready at three on Saturday with the money, a thousand notes only. His wife would be witness to the sale.

 

 

 

Chapter 22

 

Over a hundred youths turned up for the meeting. The discussion was open and educative. Some youths confessed to copying their cigarette smoking fathers. “It seemed kinda cool,” one of them said. Moving from cigarette to bhang was almost a given. Others were introduced to drugs by friends. To some abusing drugs showed maturity and independence. Faced with joblessness and a bleak future drugs were, to many, a refuge.

The moment Kush began to speak the room fell silent. “Allow me to steal the Music Junkies’ words; it is time to stop dying and to start living! We were born free of drug addiction; we made a choice to abuse them. It was the wrong call. If anything our attendance shows our resolve to right our wrongs. I overcame addiction, you too can. Just like scaling an imposing mountain it’s too ambitious to bank on a leap to do the trick. It should be a step-by-step process; reducing a bhang stick in a week or a beer mug in a day. It could be shedding off bad company. Personally I gave myself a month to overcome addiction. Every morning I recorded my expectations for the day. It could be dropping one of my drinking friends or smoking less cigarette sticks in the day. In the evening I awarded myself marks. I could not shrug off this particular friend for five days. He was such a perfect drinking friend I always drowned myself in beer and he footed the bill. On the sixth day I greeted him with a slap.” Kush demonstrated the slap in the air. “You guessed right: he ranted like a wounded buffalo. Was this how I showed my gratitude? He was bigger and stronger and his slap knocked me off my feet. My heart was bubbling with joy because I went down an alcoholic and got on my feet a reformed alcoholic.”

There were cheers and clapping. Someone even proposed Kush for the area chief.

“Resolve,” Kush went on, “a workable plan and discipline. We won’t force anyone to change; we can only support each other. Who is ready to change?”

A sea of hands went up.

“Any police officer in attendance?”

“Absent!” Someone shouted.

“The area chief?”

“Absent without apology!”

“I didn’t know I scare them this much,” Kush said amid cheers. “Now, for us to succeed we must tame the supply side. Needless to say that is the work of the police and the area chief. Now that they chose to ignore my invitation we will start by assuming that they don’t know who is selling drugs in Mung’etho and if they do then they are part of the problem.”

“They know!” It was a chorus.

“More importantly, we know. Here is the plan: each one of us will write their supplier’s name on a piece of paper. The officials will compile a list of the suppliers from the information given. No one will ever know you named them. Tomorrow we shall raid one of the suppliers and present him and the list to the authorities as proof that we mean business. If they don’t act we will act.”

“Wait a minute,” a boy at the front interrupted. “If I got you right I could take a month to overcome addiction. How shall I last a month if we raid my supplier?”

There was laughter.

“My friend, you’re busy munching your yam yet you want to keep it,” Kush said.

“Some of the suppliers are way too dangerous,” someone observed.

“They were until we joined hands,” Kush said. “They could still be if our resolve is on our lips instead of our hearts. Friends, we’re simple, ordinary guys apart but when we join hands we’re unstoppable. These are but flies on the wall. Should anyone threaten you refer them to me.”

I jotted two names on the piece of paper, Boza and Kirari, and took off to avoid Kush who was walking in my direction. Joan didn’t see me slip out.

When I got home I reached for the notes in the book in which I had put them and tensed. I searched slowly then, with anxiety gripping me, faster, then frantically. In the process the book fell and I dropped on my bed, confused. Did Mother confiscate the notes? The main house was padlocked meaning that Mother and Antonnina were out. I extended my search into Njorua’s room. I cannot claim to be tidy yet I am tidier than Njorua. I found the photo of a girl between the books and stopped to admire it. The poem at the back of the photo caught my attention. In a neat, feminine handwriting the poem read:

 

Njorua

I will swim the high seas

I will cross hell

Just to be with you

Triza.

 

“What the hell…?” Njorua said startling me. “Why are you ransacking my room?”

“I… Ah…” I stammered. “Did you take the notes?”

“Why on earth should I?”

“I just can’t find them. You know, they are the closest thing to Sarah.” I handed Njorua Triza’s photo. “Does this mean you broke up with Martha?”

“I thought you had enough to worry about,” he grabbed the photo and tore it up.

 

***

 

I accosted Mother on her arrival. “Did you take the notes?”

Mother studied me as if wondering where to hit me. “Titus, you are killing us. You promised to let the notes be, didn’t you? Can’t you keep a simple promise?”

Before I could respond Kush appeared at the gate.

“Sorry for the interruption,” Kush said joining us. “You left in a hurry.”

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“How is Sarah?”

“Recuperating,” I said.

“So it was serious. Where is she admitted?”

“Son,” Mother addressed Kush. “This is a family matter.”

“How come you are all home when Sarah is hospitalised? My aunt works at Kiaro General Hospital and she can’t find Sarah or her name anywhere. What is going on?”

Kush’s eyes oscillated between me and Mother before he declared, “I was right.”

“You were right about what?” I demanded.

“Stop right there, nitwit,” Njorua dashed after Kush who had turned to leave. “I am talking to you, empty head! Who do you think you are?”

“I don’t scare easily,” Kush said.

Njorua fished out a switch knife from his pocket.

“What are you doing?” Mother and I chorused.

“Trust me,” Njorua said, “you don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.”

Njorua seized Kush by the collar and led him towards the gate. When Njorua let go of Kush the latter studied us momentarily before he hurried out of the compound.

“Kush is no longer a bother,” Njorua was all smiles.

“Threats will only turn him more aggressive,” I said. “I think Sarah is safer with Kush in the loop.”

“Excuse me?” Njorua asked.

“If he cares for Sarah, and I believe he does, he will act in her best interests. What do you think, Mother?”

“Trust me, Kush is water under the bridge,” Njorua said walking away. He was overriding us and I did not like it.

“Mother, say something!”

Mother remained silent for such a long moment I gave up on her. I dashed after Kush but he was already gone.

“When I was your age I expected – demanded rather – that my parents met my demands,” Mother said when I rejoined her. “Needless to say they fell short. I spent sleepless nights cursing my having impoverished parents. It is my turn to meet your demands and I feel like I am demanded to enumerate the hair on my head. I wonder what your father would have done under the circumstances.”

Surely, what would Father have done? My guess couldn’t even have come close because Muthuri Mukaru was in a class of his own. However I could visualize him keeping his cool despite the storm. After mustering his wisdom he would have used a proverb no one ever put in a book. Then he would have come out tough as a tick, raffling feathers and generally getting results.

“Your father left these huge boots I am tempted to throw in the towel,” Mother said. “I’ve lost what he safeguarded for two decades in less than two weeks.”

 

 

 

Chapter 23

 

Most certainly, to you March 15th 2003 came and passed unmarked; to my family it was the day our lives would be turned upside down. Before dusk we would be landless and Sarah would either be safe and sound or dead. We had done our best to keep Sarah alive; the police were still in the dark and the ransom was almost ready.

As we breakfasted we strategized on the activities ahead. We would collect the money at three for delivery to Winsor Ranch at seven. We would hire Soldier, the solo taxi operator in the village, for the journey. So little to do yet a lot could go wrong.

The first surprise of the day came at nine. Sarah’s classmates, in school uniform, arrived accompanied by Madam Tabitha. For a whole hour our visitors agonized over non-existent malady. They had flowers and get-well cards and contributed two thousand shillings towards Sarah’s medical bill. As they sang and recited poems I hoped they would understand our situation once the truth came to light. Damn, who in their sensible mind wouldn’t? If anything we deserved a pat on the back because in lying convincingly a life would be saved. If falsehood ever superseded truth this was the perfect instance. Indeed I felt God should look the other way when one is so cornered.

When the class teacher enquired about Sarah’s whereabouts I had to modify the original lie. “She was referred to Kenyatta National Hospital for specialized treatment.”

“Now that you’re all here who is taking care of Sarah?” the teacher asked.

I begun to talk only for my mouth hung open. Damn, I should have anticipated the question. Kush had made the same observation yet I still lacked a convincing response.

“My mother is taking care of her,” Njorua said. I sighed with relief.

Madam Tabitha, a devout Christian, said a special prayer for her ‘star student.’ She cursed the devil of appendix and stopped short of ordering God to lid future generations of the useless organ.

The moment our visitors left I buried myself in a story book but anxiety won’t go away. What if Alfred changed his mind? What if Boza took the money but… damn, I was losing my mind! I racked my brain for something more engaging in vain. Joan was a no-no.

The money!

How much would a million weigh in a thousand shillings notes? How thick was the bundle? I got a thousand shilling note and held it in my hand. Needless to say it was feather-light and razor-thin. Money, oh sweet money; if only I could multiply the note a thousand times! I inspected the security thread, the watermarks, the see-through elephant; it obviously took a great deal of skill to make a piece of paper so valuable – skills so rare men resulted to kidnapping to possess the notes.

I un-hooked the two-year old calendar off the wall and ripped off the front page. I placed the note on top and, with the care and precision of a surgeon, traced it with a razor. I repeated the exercise again and again. Within half an hour I had a hundred pieces of paper. I placed the note on top and tied the bundle with a rubber band. I balanced the bundle on my hand. The note contrasted sharply with the whiteness of the pieces of paper. I used my colours to soil the edges of the bundle to give it a used notes look. When I balanced the bundle on my hand I smiled with satisfaction.

I un-hooked the current calendar and resumed tracing the note.

 

 

 

***

 

To make the three o’clock appointment with Alfred we had to leave by two thirty. Njorua, our resourceful strategist, suggested we leave separately to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. He had to leave early to meet Soldier about our evening journey. No one was supposed to engage Alfred until we were all in place.

I run into Big Mouth, the village busybody, halfway to the shopping centre.

“Is it true?” he asked me. “About Sarah, that is.”

I tensed. “She is sick.”

He smiled. “A troublesome appendix, huh? Try harder next time.”

My heart almost stopped. If Big Mouth knew then the entire village knew. That included the police which meant Sarah was as good as dead.

“Don’t you have anything worthwhile to do?”

“She was such an angel, you know,” Big Mouth said. “Will she survive?”

I lost my head. “Survive what?”

Big Mouth’s grin just got wider and his bowlegs seemed to straighten making him taller and I knew I had already lost the argument and the fight and everything.

“Who is the lucky man?”

I stopped in my tracks. What did luck have to do with a kidnapping? It came in a flash: Big Mouth was not talking about the kidnapping!

I faced him. “You tell me. You seem to know everything.”

“Kush is out,” his grin was that of a man standing on Mt. Everest. “The poor soul is distraught. My bet is on Mr. Ndege, the deputy principal. It won’t be his first. Look, Antonnina was… you know, and she kept the baby. Did Sarah have to abort?”

Abortion! In an instant I knew the origin of the abortion angle came from.

“It is none of your goddamn business,” I said and took off.

A procession of dancing youths was snaking its way towards the chief’s camp when I arrived at the village square. “I don wanna die, I wanna live,” they chanted. Joan saw and came running.

“You missed the action,” she said. “We just raided one of the pushers.”

“Who?”

“Kirari.”

“What did you find?”

“Five sacks of unprocessed bhang in an underground compartment. We’re about to present him and the list to the police. You are avoiding me.”

“Please.”

“Why don’t you give it to me straight? Come on, I am a big girl!”

“Give you what?”

“The truth.”

“What truth?”

“That you no longer want me. That I am a useless druggie, that you have another girl.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“There you go abusing me. Nowadays you find it convenient to abuse me. Next you will call me insane.”

“Look, I am running late.”

“See? We can’t even talk for five minutes. You can’t stand me!”

“I don’t have time for this,” I said. Some boys had inched closer to listen in.

“You can’t just brush me away,” Joan shouted. “Did you think I was an angel? I am blood and flesh and bones!”

It was clear that Joan was still using drugs. I pushed her aside and hurried away.

“I don’t give up easily, do you hear me?” she called after me. “You better brace yourself!”

Mother and Njorua were waiting for me in an inner room when I got to Al Hotel. Njorua went for Alfred who came with his wife. We drew the sale agreement basing it on one in Alfred’s previous acquisition. Alfred insisted on a second witness and we settled on one of his waiters.

We were in the middle of counting the money when the door burst open and in came Joan.

“What the hell…?” Njorua said covering the money. I dragged Joan out of the room.

“I am so sorry,” Joan pleaded. “I thought you were meeting…”

“Meeting who?”

“A girl.”

“We are done. Did you hear me? D-O-N-E, done!”

Joan was crying now. “Please forgive me.”

“Get the hell out of here before I lose my head!”

Joan hurried out of the hotel.

Everyone was boiling with fury on my return.

“I can explain,” I said.

“Save your breath!” Njorua said.

“Hear me out, okay? Joan thought I was meeting another girl!”

“Does it matter?” Njorua said. “You just ruined everything.”

“Boys,” Mother cut in, “we need to get out of here soonest possible.”

“I wish you were gone already,” Alfred said. “You’ve already put my family in danger.”

“We can’t leave without verification,” I said.

Alfred regarded us for a long moment. “It’s your money.”

Once done with verification we divided the money amongst the three of us. I stuffed a hundred thousand in each sock and heap pocket. We left through a back door. I doubted anyone of us could swear we had a million and two hundred thousand shillings, Kenyan legal tender. The amount could be less or a good chunk could be paper for all I knew. And I was to blame. Joan!

I was relieved and frightened at the same time when we arrived home. We had the money and the village was aware of the fact.

Mother handed Antonnina two hundred thousand shillings.

“We should leave right away,” Njorua said.

“It is barely four,” I protested.

“By now half the village knows about the money,” Njorua said. “Damn, Alfred could be on his way for it for all we know. I didn’t give up my inheritance only for it to be taken away.”

“Me neither,” Antonnina offered.

“Where shall we be for four hours?” I asked.

“We are safer in Kiaro,” Njorua said.

“With a million shillings in a polythene bag? I don’t think so.”

“An early start doesn’t necessarily mean safety,” Mother said.

“It was supposed to be a covert operation,” Njorua said. “Now everyone knows we have the money.”

“We will stick to plan,” Mother said with finality.

 

 

Chapter 24

 

 

I hoped I would not live to regret my opposition to Njorua’s suggestion of an early start. We had sacrificed so much for things to go wrong when we were so close. Unfortunately, it is always when you really want things to work out that they never do. You can imagine my shock when the police Land Cruiser drove into our compound. What now? How did they know?

“Officers, how can we help you?” Mother asked the police wearing her bravest face under the circumstances.

“We need to speak with Sarah,” Corporal Mwanzia, one of the officers who had interrogated me during the Kimotho theft, said.

“Sarah is in the hospital,” Mother said.

“Which hospital?”

“Kenyatta National Hospital.”

“What is she ailing from?”

I jumped in with the appendix lie. Mwanzia moved Mother outside so that we could see but not hear them. His colleague ensured that the rest of us didn’t exchange a word. We were cornered.

Njorua came second followed by Antonnina.

“By a troublesome appendix you mean an abortion, don’t you?” Mwanzia said when my turn came. “Whatever the case your story doesn’t add up. Soldier, the only taxi operator about, didn’t ferry anyone on Tuesday night or any other night in the past week. But then you could have called in a taxi from Kiaro so we decided to check with the hospital. Kiaro General Hospital did not admit Sarah on the said night or any other time or day. Incidentally, why are you all here when Sarah is bed-ridden kilometres away?”

“Njorua’s mother is looking after her,” I said.

“Is that so? Our investigations show that none of you has left Mung’etho since Monday.”

The trouble with lies is they only offer a respite, never a solution. We were caught in the web of our own lies. Mwanzia’s meticulous analysis of the facts left no doubt that we were lying. How were we going to get out of the jam? What had my kin told this cop? Would the kidnappers understand that police involvement was beyond our control? Was Sarah’s fate sealed? How could this happen now?

“Where is Sarah?”

Mwanzia continued to scribble on his notebook. I had to make the police leave otherwise we won’t make the drop.

“What I am about to tell you should stay between us,” I said.

“I am not here to do you favours or…”

“My sister has been kidnapped. If we involve you she dies. We are paying the ransom tonight.”

“I see.”

“Once we are done here you will promise further investigations and dire consequences. You should order us to report to the post tomorrow.”

I talked and Mwanzia scolded me theatrically now and then. He even called me chicken droppings aloud. Once I was through he stunned me with a smack. I shot to my feet.

“Why did you hit me?” I cried out. “I have rights!”

“Would you rather I shoot you?” Mwanzia charged. “We will settle this at the post. Get in the car!”

“I am going nowhere!”

“Leave him alone!” Njorua came to my rescue. “Police brutality!”

Mwanzia grabbed me by my pants and bulldozed me into the Land Cruiser. His companion was busy ordering Mother, Njorua and Antonnina into the vehicle.

“You should stop harassing us!” I shouted.

“Shut up!” Mwanzia drew his gun.

“Police brutality!” Njorua shouted. “Can’t you see my sister is expecting? I will press charges!”

“You’re good at threats, aren’t you?” Mwanzia said. “Now you’ll slash Kush’s throat, won’t you?”

“Mum, get in the vehicle,” the other officer said.

Mother stared at the two officers like a housefly that was swimming in her soup.

“Look at her,” she pointed at Antonnina. “Look at her! You should be ashamed of yourselves for this! Sarah is my daughter and I can’t love her more. You wanted the truth and we gave it to you. My family is going nowhere. If you want to shoot us go ahead.”

The two policemen moved aside and consulted briefly before they joined us.

“You will appear at the station tomorrow at nine without fail,” Mwanzia said. “Understood?”

“Understood,” Mother said.

I didn’t know whether to be afraid or relieved as the Land Cruiser drove out of the compound.

“I can’t take it any longer,” Mother said before she stormed the house.

“We should have let Kush in,” I told Njorua. “You told him that Sarah is procuring an abortion.”

“I thought he would want nothing to do with her,” Njorua said. “I was wrong.”

“Let’s hope Boza understands that we didn’t invite the police,” I said. “That we gave them nothing.”

“Why don’t you leave right away?” Antonnina said.

“The police must be watching us,” Njorua said. “We leave at seven.”

According to my wristwatch it was a quarter to six.

 

 

 

Chapter 25

 

 

We all welcomed Antonnina’s suggestion of a home-coming party for Sarah. Personally I loved the idea for its optimism; we were ready rise up, dust ourselves and soldier on. By quarter to seven Sarah’s favourite meal of chapati with chicken stew was ready. Antonnina got roses from the neighbourhood and improvised a vase from a bottle.

“Time to go,” I told Njorua.

I was about to retrieve the money when Mother stifled a scream. I dashed out of the house only to be met by Jeremy, Gilbert and Justin. The three were not in their uniform. Gilbert ordered Mother and I inside the house.

“As you must have noticed,” Jeremy said, “the Laughing Gang has taken over your beautiful home. Again, you must have noticed that the gang isn’t laughing today. Whoever shouts we will shoot them. Now, where is the money?”

“What money?” Njorua asked.

Joan! Or was it Alfred?

“Guys, you know what to do,” Jeremy addressed his accomplices who embarked on turning the house upside down. They gave up after ten minutes.

“Let’s change gears,” Jeremy said. “Get me a bucket of water!”

Justin disappeared and returned with a bucket full of water. He and Gilbert grabbed Njorua and dragged him forward. Njorua kicked and pushed but he was overpowered.

“Don’t tell them anything,” Njorua said. “I would rather die!”

“We will soon find out, won’t we?” Jeremy pinned Njorua’s head inside the bucket.

Antonnina started to cry.

“We don’t have any money!” I said.

“Stop this madness!” Mother said.

“Only you can stop it,” Jeremy said. “The money.”

Where were all the visitors who always arrived uninvited? Couldn’t anyone hear the noise? For the first time I wished I had trained in martial arts.

Njorua was pulled out of the bucket. It was horrible to watch him cough and pant knowing that the ordeal was far from over. Nonetheless surrendering the money was out of the question because in so doing Sarah would be dead.

“Would you still rather die?” Jeremy asked.

“Go burn in hell!”

Njorua’s head was pushed in the bucket once more.

“My children,” Mother pleaded, “Please listen to me. The money is…”

“Shut up!” Antonnina cut in.

“I can’t take it anymore,” Mother said.

“We are just getting started mum.”

“The money is…”

“Will you shut up?” Antonnina hissed.

“Mother…” I started.

“It is ransom for Sarah who was kidnapped.”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” Jeremy said. “Nonetheless, Sarah should be the least of your worries, woman. Indeed she is lucky we can’t lay our hands on her. Make no mistake about it; we are not leaving without the money.”

“What you are asking for is impossible to a mother,” Mother said. “How do you choose the death of one child over the other?”

“Luckily I am not a mother,” Jeremy chuckled. Njorua was convulsing now. Antonnina was crying. Mother and I continued to plead.

“Okay,” I offered getting on my feet. “I will show you.”

“Titus!” Antonnina yelled at me.

“Do you want Njorua dead?”

Mother collapsed to the floor.

“Smart move, Titus,” Jeremy said letting go of Njorua who fell on his back. He was unconscious. I beckoned to Justin and led him to my mother’s wardrobe. It was huge with two bottom drawers. I pulled the right side drawer, lifted the false bottom to reveal a green polythene bag. I handed it over to Justin who peeped inside and smiled.

“It is all there,” I said.

“It better be,” he said pushing me to join other family members who were lying flat on their bellies. I was ordered to join them on the floor.

“Time to tie loose ends,” Jeremy said.

“You mean kill them?” Justin said.

“Don’t tell me you have forgotten already!”

“Titus,” Jeremy addressed me. “Like I said, this is the best paying job in the world. Now we have our retirement package. Kill them!”

We were now crying for mercy. Why rob and kill us? I expected a bullet to rip me apart any moment, or a machete to separate my head from my body. Of late I was dancing with death too frequently. A minute passed without a gun exploding or a machete chopping anything. I peeped towards the door.

The gang was gone.

“They’re gone,” I said collecting myself to a sitting position. Njorua sprung at me and pinned me to the ground. He started jabbing me repeatedly on the face. It took the effort of Mother to free me.

“Why did you do it? We have no land and now you have killed your sister. You killed her! Of course they knew someone would talk. I wish it was the women. You are a disgrace to manhood.”

I dashed to the wardrobe, pulled the left drawer and removed a green polythene paper similar to the one the gang had taken. I joined the others and poured its contents. The first indication was that these were pieces of paper the size of a thousand notes held together by a rubber band. I tore away the top sheet amid heavy sighs of relief.

“They will be back the moment they realise all they have is twelve thousand and a lot of paper,” I said. “Find somewhere safe to stay until we return.”

“Good luck,” the two women chorused.

Njorua and I hurried out of the house.

 

 

Chapter 26

 

Soldier, real name Davidson Matere and a former soldier with the Kenya Army, once fell in the hands of a gang that left him for dead. Father took him to the hospital and settled his bill. Soldier survived but sustained injuries that rendered him unfit to serve. He only got the identity of the God Samaritan years later through my mother when Father suffered a stroke.

“Your father was a saint on vacation on earth,” Soldier said changing gears. “I know, you are tired of hearing such sentiments. What is in Kiaro?”

My mind was momentarily lost in the five hundred thousand stuffed in my socks among other locations on my person.

“Business,” I said.

“Legal business?”

“Yeah.”

At seven in the night you would only find a handful of people, mostly on bicycles, along Mung’etho-Kiaro road. Mung’etho Airbus, the only public transport available, had since called it a day.

The kidnappers’ choice of the drop-off point was so ingenious I could not have chosen a better spot. It was grass upon grass occasionally punctuated by paddock fencing and trees that stood like giants soldiers. The windmill stood a hundred metres off the road. The offices, the slaughter house, the tannery and workers quarters were situated three kilometres inside the ranch. I once interviewed for a job on the ranch, a queer affair in which the interviewer asked whether I knew how to push a wheelbarrow.

We went through the fence and started for the windmill. The instructions were to leave the money at the base of the towering structure.

“You denied the Laughing Gang their retirement package,” Njorua said. “You never cease to amaze.”

“Thank the porridge between Justin’s ears. It’s awkward, you know, denying one outlaw so that you can reward another.”

“This way we get Sarah back.”

“Yeah.”

“When did you prepare the paper bundle?”

“After Sarah’s classmates’ departure,” I said. “I jammed the trap door in a way only I could open it.”

“Did you anticipate the gang?”

“Considering the amount anyone could have struck.”

We got to the windmill.

“This is it,” I said.

“This is it. Do you think he is watching us?”

“I can feel it.”

“The bastard.”

We placed the money at one of the four stands of the windmill and started for the road.

“Thank you for everything,” I said.

“Landlessness marks the beginning of the end.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic.”

“I am being realistic,” Njorua said. “For a house that never was much of a family this is certainly the last stroke.”

“I think we have done exceptionally well under the circumstances.”

“I agree. Father did his bit despite his shortcomings. Your mother really tried but, truth be told, a woman cannot love another woman’s child as she would her own child.”

“Can a child love another woman the way he would his mother?”

“Antonnina and I did our best,” Njorua was irritated. “You will never know the pain of waking up every morning wondering why your mother isn’t there for you.”

The windmill was now a hazy wheel hovering over the surface at a distance. Someone was probably collecting the money at this moment congratulating themselves for their shrewdness.

“Come on,” Njorua called. “We should be home when Sarah arrives.”

“Who says she is about to arrive?”

“A moment ago you were condemning pessimism,” Njorua said. “Having delivered our side of the deal I expect Boza to do likewise.”

We hurried to the waiting car.

“You had no business in Kiaro,” Soldier said pulling out.

“Sarah was kidnapped on Tuesday,” I said. “We just delivered the ransom.”

“That settles a lot of queries,” Soldier said. “The abortion-appendix debate. Sarah’s whereabouts. The alleged threat on Kush’s life. How much?”

“One million.”

Soldier whistled. “Who would be so punitive just after your father’s death?”

“If we had an answer we wouldn’t be landless,” Njorua said.

Soldier handed me the fare we had paid for the trip. “How else can I help?”

“We can’t expect the kidnapper to deliver Sarah home,” Njorua said. “We will have to comb the neighbourhood for her.”

 

 

Chapter 27

 

 

The first sign that something was afoot was the human traffic on the roads. The second sign was a cloud of smoke hovering over our homestead.

“The Laughing Gang!” Njorua said.

“Step on it!” I urged Solder.

When we arrived home there were about a hundred people gathered about the burning remains of our cabin and the bodies of Jeremy, Justin and Gilbert.

Antonnina hurried to meet us. “What a relief to have you back you! The gang returned. Some neighbours identified the three and trailed them here.”

“I hope they didn’t shoot anyone,” I said.

“They couldn’t,” Antonnina said. “They had toy guns.”

“Toy guns?” Heavens! It felt ridiculous that I had been so terrified by toys. But how could I tell a gun from an imitation when I had never handled one?

Kush joined us. “You should have trusted me,” he said.

“We did what we had to do,” I said. “You are the perfect person to mobilize a village-wide for Sarah.”

“Would it endanger her?”

“The kidnapper was silent on how we would get her back,” Njorua said. “Possibly he will just cut her loose.”

“Consider her found,” Kush said taking off.

“Where is Mother?” I asked Antonnina.

“Alone in the house,” Antonnina said. “She kicked everyone out.”

Mother was hunched up on the sofa. She looked up when I entered the house and resumed her stare at a spot on the floor.

“Are you okay?” I said.

Mother stared at me unseeingly. Sorrow and anxiety had accelerated her aging process.

“Mother…”

“Don’t mother me!”

I watched in silence as she swallowed one too many painkillers.

“What were the bundles of paper for?” she asked.

“They certainly came in handy…”

“You planned to endanger Sarah further.”

“Mother…”

“Are you hard of hearing? Don’t mother me!” Her voice was full of venom. “I brought you up and now you’ve brought us down. How does it feel? Where did you get the idea you were born to save the world?”

I let her drain herself. Her being the prosecutor and the judge left me guilty as charged. Damn, I had earned my place on the cross. I had stupidly played into the hands of the enemy.

“I never imagined I would survive my children.”

“Sarah will be okay,” I said. “We have met the kidnappers’ demands.”

“What if they don’t do likewise?”

“Mother!”

She was close to tears. Njorua and Antonnina walked in.

“There was a kidnapping many years ago,” Mother said. “Instead of releasing the hostage the kidnappers demanded another ransom before they went silent. To date the boy’s parents still await to be reunited with their son.”

“We have sacrificed a lot to despair now,” Njorua said.

“It has only been an hour,” Antonnina said. “Everyone in Mung’etho must be looking for Sarah.”

“You must be right,” Mother said. “I just can’t stand the pressure anymore.”

Me neither. The sound of a vehicle sounded like music to my ears.

“Just like the police,” Antonnina said. “Ever late.”

Two policemen entered the house.

“Aren’t you ashamed to saunter in now?” Mother asked. “Collect the corpses at least as justification for your pay. If this is about the interrogation we lied and we are not sorry for it!”

“Of course you lied,” Corporal Mwanzia said. “But not Titus.”

“What?” Mother, Njorua and Antonnina chorused.

“When did he…?” Njorua asked.

“During the interrogation,” Mwanzia said. “We have Sarah.”

“Where is she?” Mother demanded. “Is she hurt?”

“She is just groggy,” Mwanzia said. “The kidnappers intoxicated her to keep her disoriented.”

“Where is she?”

“First things first,” the officer said.

“What could be more important?”

“Arresting the kidnappers.”

 

 

Chapter 28

 

 

 

“What is going on?” Mother asked.

“Mother,” I said. “Njorua, Antonnina and their mother are behind the kidnapping.”

“How dare you!” Antonnina said.

“Is this the reward for sacrificing our birthright?” Njorua sprung to his feet only for Mwanzia to force him back to his seat.

“Am I expected to believe that?” Mother asked. “Officer, talk to me.”

“Mum, I am equally curious,” Mwanzia said. “Titus, please go on.”

“I think the three have been together all along,” I said. “When I saw Simane at the funeral I felt I had seen her before.”

“Keep talking,” Mother urged.

“They kidnapped Sarah to beat Father’s will. To raise a million shillings we had to sell the land.”

“I don’t get it,” Mother said. “We had to beg Njorua and Antonnina to agree to the sale.”

“Their reluctance was designed to create the illusion that we had prevailed over them.”

“Unbelievable,” Njorua said.

“Did you know this all along?” Mother wanted to know.

“Not until I scrutinized the notes. Their disappearance strengthened my suspicion.”

“I didn’t take them,” Mother protested.

“Antonnina did,” I said. “She feigned dizziness when I found her eavesdropping on us. She has been particularly keen on my activities.” I turned to Njorua. “You looped your f s and l s. You were my teacher, remember? You wrote the second and third notes. The handwriting on Triza’s photo and that on the final note was a perfect match.”

“Are you a forensic expert now?” Njorua asked. “What a fertile, dirty mind! Time to prove your allegations.”

“We have Triza in custody,” Mwanzia said. “Your mother too. Have a look at this.”

Mwanzia handed Njorua and Antonnina a piece of paper. Njorua cursed loudly, Antonnina started to cry.

“The bus leaves at 7 am,” Mwanzia said. “Bring her in.”

Ascar Simane was brought in. She was in a bobble hat, a polo neck and a pink pair of trousers.

“You promised nothing like this would happen!” Antonnina wailed.

“Is the ticket yours?” Njorua demanded.

“You were to join me in Mombasa…”

“Liar!” Njorua charged at his mother but was forced back to his chair. “I’ll ensure that you suffer!”

“I suffer, you suffer,” there was no remorse in the cat eyes. “I was doing it for you!”

“Wait a moment,” Mother said. “Did you kill Jimmy?”

“She did,” Antonnina said.

“Antonnina!”

“She warned that we won’t live to get our inheritance,” Njorua said. “Jimmy was all jittery when I suggested he hold Sarah. She told me to forget him and instructed me to put up with Titus for the night. She wouldn’t say why. She lynched him and warned that we were equally guilty. She conceived the Boza angle following Titus’ pursuit of Jimmy’s killer.”

“You warned Kirari of the raid,” I said.

“I did,” Njorua said.

“Who did the kidnapping?” Mwanzia asked.

“Triza and I,” Njorua said. “Her brother had just joined Kenya Polytechnic leaving behind a free room. You should leave my sister out of this.”

“Happy?” Simane said. “You stupidity has just earned you a long stretch in jail!”

“What kind of a mother are you?” Mother said. “You brought forth children, you abandoned them and now you have destroyed their lives. Your womb should never have been fertile.”

“Who are you to judge me? You shamelessly milk a cow you never fed. Husband snatcher!”

“You should have stayed under whatever rock you crawled from,” Antonnina said.

“How dare you?”

Ascar, Njorua and Antonnina were whisked away.

I approached Corporal Mwanzia. “Did you have to slap me so hard?”

“It had to be convincing.”

“Oh my, for a moment I thought you did not buy my story.”

“You can make a good detective.”

“Who, me?” I asked. “I like to think of myself as a good painter.”

“You should consider it,” he said.

“Where is my daughter?” Mother asked.

“She is at the health centre. I’ll take you to her.”

We started towards the Land Cruiser.

 

 

 

The end

 

 

 

 

Thank you for purchasing and finding time to read this book. If you enjoyed this story, please consider rating it and posting a review on the website where you purchased it.

 

 

List of Characters

h1={color:#365f91;}.

 

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Muthuri Mukari – a respected man who dies

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p<>{color:#000;}. Mutumia Mutana – Mukaru’s wife

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p<>{color:#000;}. Titus Mutuiria – their son

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p<>{color:#000;}. Stanley Njorua – their son

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p<>{color:#000;}. Sarah Mwihaki – their daughter

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p<>{color:#000;}. Antonnina Karuana – their daughter

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p<>{color:#000;}. Kirari – a drug pusher

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p<>{color:#000;}. Joan – Titus’ girlfriend

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p<>{color:#000;}. Alfred – a local business man.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Corporal Mwanzia – a policeman

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p<>{color:#000;}. Jeremy – member of the Laughing Gang

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p<>{color:#000;}. Gilbert – member of the Laughing Gang

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p<>{color:#000;}. Justin – Gilbert’s sibling and member of the Laughing Gang

 

 

About Anthony Mugo

h1={color:#365f91;}.

h1={color:#365f91;}.

 

Anthony Mugo was fourteen when he read The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. By the time he got to the last page he knew he wanted to become a mystery writer. His dream was realized with the publication of the Mike Sanse Murder Mysteries Series. His Young Adult novella, Never say Never, is based on his struggles at getting an education. It won him the Burt Award. Anthony Mugo lives in Nairobi with his wife, son and daughter. When he is not writing he is reading. When he is not reading he is writing.

 

 

Connect with Anthony Mugo

 

 

 

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p={color:#00F;}. Facebook

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p={color:#00F;}. Twitter

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p={color:#00F;}. Website

 

 

 

Other titles by Anthony Mugo

 

 

Never Say Never is a compelling story of a teenager’s quest for education under the most difficult conditions. Daniel Muthini Njoki, the son of a poor, single mother, is arrested and taken to a remand home in Murang’a, then to Getathuru Reception Center. He is subsequently transferred to other approved schools: Kerricho, Othaya, and finally Kabete, where he sits and passes the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. The doors to a university are now open. Although he is an innocent inmate, and although textual evidence points in the direction of the mother, the question of who engineered his arrest is part of what makes this work so interesting. The sum total is a superlatively well written novel about the difficulties, the challenges, and the hopes of getting an education in Kenya. 

 

Never say Never won the Burt Award for African Literature in 2012.

 

 

 

 

In Ask the Stars, Titus Mutuiria remembers how at the age of ten he seemed to lead a normal life of sibling rivalry with Njorua, Antonnina and Sarah until some events from their past threaten to rewrite his life. Njorua and Antonnina learn that Mutumia Mutana, the mother they have always known is not their biological mother while Titus learns that Muthuri Mukaru is not the biological father of himself and Sarah. What follows is a gripping story of jealousy, fear, loyalty, friendship and love as the siblings grow and confront an array of challenges as the family forge solutions to the troubles that beset them. The story of young love between Titus and Joan and the actions of a lurking rapist in the village bring added dimensions to the story, showing that things are not always what they seem. Eventually, the teenagers and their parents must nurture a love that strengthens their family and that also brings sanity to the village.

 

Ask the Stars won the Burt Award for African Literature in 2014.

 

 

 

 

Emilio Gitonga is murdered following a quarrel with Bob Gitau, his son. In the quarrel father disowns son and son threatens father’s life. When Bob is found at the scene of crime holding the murder weapon he is put on trial. His fate appears to be sealed until his wife hires Mike Sanse, a former CID officer now a private investigator, to interrogate the case. The judgment is a week away. Sanse has a week to stop the bank from repossessing his home. Can the police stand being challenged? Did Bob kill his father? If not, can Sanse navigate the web of deception, blackmail and greed in time?

 

The Lollipop Flew Away is the first book in the Mike Sanse Murder Mysteries.

 

 

 

 

 

When a decapitated body is found Diana Ciuri identifies it as that of her husband who went missing two days ago. Oscar Ciuri happens to be a popular candidate in the oncoming elections. Senior Detective Cosmas Pai and Senior Detective Mike Sanse fell apart when the latter pointed his gun at the former. Pai transferred to Kathare to distance himself from Sanse. Sanse has since lost his job to become a private investigator in Kathare. He has information that could cost Pai his job.

And now Pai’s boss wants the two men to be partners all over again. 
The two rivals must find a common ground and find Oscar Ciuri’s killer before his mad supporters burn down the town. Just when the two think they have it figured out another body surfaces… 

 

Darling… I Need Your Corpse is the second book in the Mike Sanse Murder Mysteries.

 


Blame it on the Stars

When Mukaru’s marriage to Simane collapsed he retained custody of their children, Njorua and Antonnina. He married Mutana who had a son, Mutuiria. She bore him Sarah. Mukaru dies leaving behind a will that tie his beneficiaries together for four years. A week is hardly gone before Sarah is kidnapped forcing the family to disregard the will. Who would demand a million shillings from a family that is down to its last cent? Will Njorua and Antonnina sacrifice their inheritance in time to save Sarah? Blame it on the Stars affirms Anthony Mugo’s place as a master storyteller.

  • ISBN: 9781370342563
  • Author: Anthony Mugo
  • Published: 2017-07-21 06:35:27
  • Words: 30019
Blame it on the Stars Blame it on the Stars