MAR 19, 2023
The old man cautiously straightened his brown djellaba as he sat on the edge of the well and watched his son draw water. Their three weather-beaten grey asses idly stood with the aluminium containers saddled on the wooden carriers. It would be a difficult grind back up to the homestead, but life had to be eked somehow. The land was harsh and cruel, but, it was their home. Over their heated discussion, they could hear the drone of a distant aeroplane. As the minute passed, the sound rose, and they craned their necks upward. They spotted it race across the sky, and in a moment, it was gone. The son poured the last of the water onto the final container as his father rose, and together, they began the long ascension up the hill towards home.
Above them, in the Skytrain, Mapacha stared idly outside the small porthole and watched the minute, tiny ant-sized objects far beneath them. He also kept an eye on the instruments and listened in on the radio. In the cabin, there was a flurry of activity. Banou's train case was set on Mzee Tembo's lap which he used as a makeshift table and he gleefully fieldstripped the guns, inspected them and scrubbed them clean. He had ached for such opportunities. His mind played out the last couple of days. It was a bit of a shame that Mapacha had been shot, but the lad was strong and he was on the mend. However, here on this plane at this moment as he serviced the guns, this was exactly where he wanted to be. At the back, Gwafa and Banou had stripped much of the plane's floor panels. They stuffed the banknotes into the bottom alongside the three handguns, the hash and the weed. Mzee Tembo fingered his glasses up, reassembled his revolver and rotated the cylinder. That free spin whirr cracked a childish smile.
"Are you guys done yet?" Mapacha asked the others.
"Almost," Gwafa replied, "Is something going on?"
"Anfa tower is calling."
Gwafa dropped the tools and came up to the cabin, picked up the headset and listened in.
"Anfa tower this is 7 - Tango - Golf - Romeo - Romeo, we copy!"
He set the headset down, rushed back into the cabin, and panelled the last bit of the floor. Banou finally sat down and picked up her train case and sniffed it.
"Old man, now it smells like gun oil and rotten eggs."
She shook her head. Clearly, he did not care. They heard Gwafa talk on the radio and the plane started to turn and begin its descent.
"Twenty minutes guys. Get ready."
The plane remained steady over Ouled Sidi Ahmed before it turned right over Berrechid as the descent rapidly increased.
Though her face was cheerful, her heart and mind stormed furiously. It was possibly the worst time to have to endure a reality check, but, she had begun to embrace the actuality of this little enterprise. Banou had noticed how the doctor had scrutinised her. She had consorted with smugglers, and agents, and participated in a gunfight, and really, the only difference between them and street gangsters was that they had access to a plane and operated abroad, save for that Englishman's who had been thrashed by Mapacha, which was well deserved, but, it had ultimately served her this dog's breakfast.
Why had the Englishman not just paid for her services and let her be? By contrast, in barely a couple of weeks, she had gone from nights in the backroom of a bar to days as a homeowner. Also, she had money. Lots of it. If Morocco was successful, she would get more, and perhaps shut this crime spree down. When she returned to Josephine, she would need to seriously evaluate this entire setup.
Gwafa received instructions and adjusted the plane's trajectory, and finally circled over the airport. The touchdown was smooth and in a minute, they faced an aircraft marshaller dressed in a dark uniform and peaked cup. He motioned using white red-rimmed 'lollipop' beacons and crossed them over his head and the plane halted. The chocks were set as he put out the engines and opened the service door. A thick wind washed into the cabin as he climbed down, shook hands with the marshaller and asked if he could get the plane fuelled. The others followed off the plane and stood for a moment as they watched the busy airport activity.
After a short while, a yellow Shell Leyland 'Hippo' turned up to the plane. Its service crew executed a rigorous refuel exercise and stocked the plane in under half an hour. Gwafa took the payment chit, went to the terminal, paid and returned with a porter. He secured the plane, and they loaded the bags and the porter led them towards the terminal. The others followed in a close huddled group.
"We are good to go?" Mzee Tembo asked.
They echoed their agreements.
"Mapacha, how do you feel?"
He flipped a thumbs-up.
"I'm great, boss."
Gwafa got them cleared, and they were out in under five minutes. They were approached by a small red-bodied Simca 1000 taxi with a black roof that held up a rack. A hip youthful Moroccan stuck his head out and flashed a crooked smile. He lifted one eyebrow when he spotted Banou and unleashed the full set of milky whites.
"Hello, my friends. Welcome to Casablanca. Where would you like me to take you?"
"This one is not far. Fifty dollars."
Gwafa smiled and turned away before the taxi driver quickly argued it out. They haggled and settled on twenty. The taxi driver loaded the bags onto the carrier, and they all jumped in. As they drove out, Banou flinched as she presumed she had seen a familiar face. She mulled it for a moment, then reasoned that she was mistaken, perhaps driven by paranoia, and thus considered no more of it.
The white city. Stylish, exotic, magnetic, and above all, its name had been imparted on a popular romantic film that Banou had watched, and this was what enthused her the most. As the Simca covered the expansive boulevards, they could see the evening throng of cyclists as they bobbed between the pedestrians and vehicles, and jostled for the tough competition of the road. Mules ferried wares up and down the streets. Well-dressed moustached guides led weary reddened tourists to their next haunt where they unashamedly lightened their pockets delicately in a well-crafted finesse. At a junction, they saw a troupe of entertainers clad in darkened red capes delight with various percussion instruments accompanied by the loud twang of the sintars. As was envisioned, the excited sightseers, mystified by this 'exotic' routine parted with dollars and pounds and francs and escudos and pesetas. The more they disbursed, the more the show became energised.
The roads brimmed with European and American cars, a stark reminder of the remnants of the pervasive American and European presence. The blend of voguish tourists, some of who appeared in risque outfits roamed the streets in pursuit of some new escapade to partake in or photograph. The smartly dressed traffic officer directed the Simca alongside many other cars behind and in front, onto Avenue des Forces Armées Royales, more typically referred to as F.A.R., and turned right onto a small street where it stopped in front of a moderate but ornately designed stately white building. Underneath the dimly lit bulb, the small sign noisily wobbled with the draft. Written in bold black italicised font was its name, the 'HOTEL EXCELSIOR'.
"Here we are," offered the taxi driver.
He hooted, and a porter snuck a look out of the main door, saw the laden taxi and rushed out. The gang stood outside for a moment as their luggage was deposited in the reception. Gwafa paid the taxi driver, who waved, jumped back into his taxi and drove off into the night.
Inside, the porter and the receptionist were in a heated exchange, with broad smiles and infectious laughter. They quickly composed themselves once the gang entered the reception.
"Welcome to the Hotel Excelsior. Would you like rooms for the evening?"
Gwafa booked for two nights, negotiated a favourable rate, registered them, and soon, everyone was led to their room on the third floor. Outside, the darkness shrouded the city.
After twenty minutes, Gwafa and Banou knocked on Mapacha's door. He knew it was them, and he told them to let themselves in. His face bore a weary look as he lay on the bed.
"Hi big guy, feeling alright?"
"I'm just tired, it was a long day."
"Well, you need to get up. We need to change the dressing."
He stood up, removed his shirt, and sat on the chair by the desk. Gwafa undid the bandage, checked the gauze and noted that the bloody wound had barely bled. He took the tincture of iodine, wiped it down and wrapped it with a fresh dressing.
"Looks better big guy."
Banou rolled a joint as she sat on the bed then lit it and handed it over to Mapacha.
"Thanks, Banou," he said, as he inhaled it appreciatively.
She smiled. "No problem. You feeling better?"
"Much better, thanks to all of you."
Banou lit a cigarette and opened the window to let the smoke out. Gwafa lit a Caporal and slowly they all enjoyed their moment. The room stank, but at this point, no one seemed to be concerned. When they finished up, Mapacha wore his shirt, and then they went to find Mzee Tembo.
They found him at the reception, his eyes in a desperate gaze at a Libération newspaper set on a coffee table. The inset picture showed a burnt-out shell of a Citroën and the only word that mattered to Mzee Tembo was boldly displayed below the picture. 'Tangier.'
"Gwafa," he called him, "what does this say?"
Gwafa read the article, as the others surrounded him and saw the picture before he closed and folded the paper and set it back on the table.
Outside he explained.
"The newspaper says that two Ivorian government officials in the company of a British-South African business magnate were attacked by gangsters who attempted to rob them of their goods. The gangsters shot them and then proceeded to torture them, in search of money. They then made away with their passports and wallets. It also said that the police are in search of four Moroccan gangsters, one of who may have been injured but they are believed to have crossed the Strait and escaped to Tarifa by boat."
It sobered them in some ways, but they realised that Mzee Tembo was right. Kobus and the Ivorians had kept quiet to orchestrate the scandal.
"Where are we going?" A flustered Mzee Tembo asked.
"A Ma Bretagne," Banou answered.
"Excellent!" Gwafa responded enthusiastically.
It was a fairly long ride that lasted almost half an hour before they got to the celebrated French restaurant. Fatigue had begun to creep up on them. To Banou, it seemed like a year had passed since they had sat in the hotel with the dishy Makhlouf, doing dirty deals. They had been on high alert for far too long and they needed to unwind, and this restaurant that Banou had heard about was the ticket to this.
It was famous for many reasons, but the top of the list was that it was a regional status symbol for French cuisine and hospitality. So elevated was the station of this eatery, as Banou had been apprised, that the next best French restaurant northwards was in Paris itself, and that preceded whatever was available in Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and hilariously, all the French cities in between and this included the highly esteemed Monaco.
You could see why. The refined backdrop of pristine white table tops was set on meticulously crafted wooden tables, with comfortable wooden chairs. Despite the heat, a fire roared in le foyer and added to the aura that made it seem that much more cultivated. When they entered, a host, attired in a meticulous black uniform received them and led them to one of those well-set tables where settled them and held a chair for Banou before he returned with leather-bound menus. Banou and Gwafa, appreciative of the ambience appeared comfortable, while Mzee Tembo wondered why they were there. Mapacha, partially dazed looked serene and lost.
"OK Banou, you brought us here so you tell us what is good," Mzee Tembo groaned.
The menu, entirely in French threw them off and it was upon Gwafa to translate, while Banou explained. His selection was a Chicken Chasseur, while Mapacha went for the Short Rib Bourguignon. Mzee Tembo was famished and picked a Chicken Dijon, while Banou got the meal that had brought her here. Coq au Vin.
They were all served juice save for Gwafa who picked a Chateau Cos d'Estournel from Saint-Estephe. The waiter, nearly teary-eyed, had a tremendous grin on his face as he graciously approved. Not that it paired well with the meal, but, someone had recognised its true value. He was a true snob and enthused when someone ordered a well-heeled slightly pricey wine not the budget white swill or bubbly champagnes. He particularly loathed 'Napa experts', who bragged about their knowledge yet seemed to pick the most horrid labels. Impressed, he would urge the chef to rush the meals for those awfully dressed but unexpectedly chic four fine people just so that he could have the pleasure to serve one of them a second glass of the Chateau.
A half-hour later, four plates were hastily, yet fastidiously set and the second round of juice and the wine followed. For the gang, it would prove to be an unbelievable meal. Even a dour Mapacha relished this exquisite feast, not that he knew much about it. The third round of juice, accompanied by a dessert menu drew them to their limit. Mapacha downed an antibiotic, waited a bit and then ordered tea. Banou requested ice cream and the others, slices of gateau. At this point, Gwafa and Banou lit their cigarettes, and the plan was revealed.
"So, we should not be here for more than two days," Mzee Tembo explained.
"We haven't done any shopping and we don't even have a customer for the remaining stones," Banou pointed out.
"Well we have this number that Mahklouf provided, and I will call Lourencio tomorrow to see if he can provide a backup plan for us."
"What happens if we can't find anyone?" Banou asked.
"Well, we wind the whole thing down and go home. We have pretty much come out ahead. This is just a small bonus for everything that has happened."
Banou nodded as she drew smoke from her cigarette that slowly hissed it out.
"So, tomorrow, Banou, you and Mapacha head out to the market and do your shopping. Get everything you need, rugs, fabrics, whatever you had planned for. Also, pick a few items for Una, and I guess Mapacha you will want to get a few bits for Abril. Gwafa, find us a car. Then the three of you will head to the airport and load the plane. I will try to make the deal for tomorrow evening, then we bail soon after."
"OK. Sounds like a plan."
With the afters done and cigarettes finally snuffed, they sauntered out to what was midnight, hailed a taxi and enjoyed the ride back to the hotel. Gwafa and Mzee Tembo entered their room while Banou followed Mapacha into his room. She rolled him a joint and then quietly, sat and smoked. When they finished, she bid him goodnight and left. He struggled to undress, rolled into the bed and let the consciousness drift away. Abril's naked figure surfaced in his dream and called him to come home.