Monday, March 18, 2013

The Chase

Excerpt from the first draft MS for PIRATES (Cutting Edge Press) © Greg Cummings

Continued from Chapter One...

“What do you want here?” demanded the old askari on one side of the large iron gate.
“You know very well,” protested the equally elderly woman on the other side.
Hapana! ” yelled the askari, “You cannot enter! Afendi does not know you, and you will not pass through this gate.” He was a tall, dark Acholi, from the same northern Ugandan tribe as Idi Amin, dressed in colonial-style khakis - short-sleeved shirt and shorts. He stooped over the peep hole in the gate, and wagged a bony finger at the woman on the other side, who stood back from the smell of his breath but refused to leave.
“Who’s at the gate Aturu,” asked Derek Strangely, shuffling out of his bungalow into the blazing equatorial sun. He wore only a purple kanga, and was followed by his dog Rafiki, a mongrel of mixed origin, like Derek. It was mid morning.
“She must not enter, afendi,” replied Aturu, standing to attention. 
“Is it Agnes?” asked Derek, approaching the gate.
“I don’t know this woman,” he said, slamming shut the peep hole.
“C’mon, Aturu, let Agnes in.” 
Hapana! I cannot!”
“Jesus, Aturu, she’s my maid.” A pair of White-bellied go-away birds flew in to roost atop the tall olyusambia tree growing in the property opposite, and started cackling.
“I’m not opening for this woman, afendi. Even if you give me kibokos.”
“Fine. Then stand aside! I’ll let her in.” Derek pushed past his askari and tried to unbolt the doorway that led through the gate, but Aturu had padlocked it. “The key, Aturu...” The askari smiled broadly; he was missing most of his teeth. Rafiki barked at him, but he stood his ground. Then Derek stepped up closer to him and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”
“No sah!” said Aturu, still grinning through a misshapen rift across his wrinkled face.
“Well then, give me the key.” Reluctantly the old northerner reached into his khaki shorts and produced his greatest possession: the key to the padlock that opened the gate to Mr Derek’s house in Kampala. With it he wielded great power.
Derek opened the gate, and Agnes barged through and rounded on Aturu. “What’s wrong with your problem?” He tried to dodge her blows, protesting loudly in his defense, but she continued her assault. Rafiki circled the squabbling Ugandans, barking incessantly. Derek simply turned and walked back to his bungalow; he was used to the routine by now.
He had recently made some adjustments in his life. One of them was taking on full-time domestic staff to help him feel more secure at home. But his askari was proving a handful. There is such a thing as too much security. He sat down on his sagging sofa and examined his dilapidated living room. A clean patch of wall, as big as a window marked the spot where a map of Congo used to hang. 
On his driveway was another empty space where his black-on-black Land Rover Discovery III had once been parked. Without Pedro to drive it, nor to stop him, Derek had sold “The Blackback” to the first Big Man who came along. He no longer had any need for a safari vehicle. After all the negative publicity that followed his ordeal in the Congo, no one wanted to hire him, not even to guide their day trip to Lake Mburo. The money from the Blackback had been barely enough to support him since. 
The cacophony at the gate had died down and, and Rafiki was curled up at his feet. The only sound was bird life, an overabundance of it coming from every power line and treetop. “At least the power lines have some use,” thought Derek, pointlessly aiming his remote at an inert television on the other side of the room. Avian life was about the only entertainment he could rely on these days. With over a thousand species ranging through the country, it was hard to avoid an interest in ornithology in Uganda. There was one particular bird, a Common bulbul that perched outside his window every morning before the sun was up and began singing, “Get straight to it Strangely! Get straight to it Strangely!” like an insistent nanny. He made a point of never rising before hearing it.
“How the hell can I get straight to it, when there’s no goddamn electricity?” was his usual response. Uganda’s relentless power outages were the main bone of contention for anyone living there. Derek found them especially hard to endure in the morning, as he was never fully awake until he’d drunk a mug of black coffee. Brewing it over a coal fire was just too complicated and time consuming. And neither Agnes nor Aturu ever grasped the concept of a good cup of Joe. 
Power cuts in the evening, however, were much more bearable. He would simply hang a paraffin lamp in the starflower tree next to his veranda, sit down on the grass with a cold Club, and watch a billion stars twinkle. “They don’t call it the Dark Continent for nothing.”

Derek’s phone rang. It was not a number he recognised. “Derek Strangely.” 
“Yo, Gorilla Man! How’s it hanging?”
“Who’s this?” asked Derek, stroking his black and silver beard.
“Johnny Oceans.”
Dive bwana? No fucking way! I thought you were dead.”
“If that’s true, then Kampala’s hell. Meet me at Fat Boyz in twenty minutes.”
“I’m on my way.” Derek quickly dressed in a pair of jeans, T-shirt, and flip flops, and headed out the door, tying his greying hair back in a ponytail while issuing instructions to Aturu to feed Rafiki and get some more charcoal. 
“But afendi, it is my job to guard the gate. You can send Agnes for charcoal.”
“Not now, Aturu,” barked Derek, closing the gate behind him to howls of protest from Rafiki. After taking a few short steps he was accosted by a boda boda, one of Kampala’s omnipresent motorcycle taxis. “Jjebale’ko sebo,” said Derek, greeting the driver in accordance with the Bugandan custom of exchanging niceties before proceeding with anything.
“Kale sebo nawe jjebale,” replied the driver.
“Take me to Kisamenti,” instructed Derek, donning his Ray ban Wayfarer sunglasses.
“Kisementi, Kamwokya?” asked the driver.
“Eh-heh!” replied Derek, jumping on the back. The ride was a far cry from the luxury of the Blackback but he didn’t care much. Boda bodas were the poor man’s helicopter in these parts. When they reached the end of his street, the driver arced into Kira Road and sped down the hill, cutting around vehicles and pedestrians like a sun-addled bat. 
He narrowly missed a traffic cop, a stout woman dressed in khaki, black beret and boots standing at the side of the road, who did not even blink. Despite the fact few Ugandan motorists demonstrated any grasp of the Highway Code, this traffic cop wasn’t interested in trying to enforce the law. Like so many in her profession, extortion was her racket. She was looking out for drivers in expensive cars talking on their mobile phones. Before long, she had pulled one over, a big man in an AUDI. “Another Ugandan Driving Imbecile,” quipped Derek, looking back over his shoulder, as she cheerily sidled up to the unfortunate motorist’s window. 

“Where are you from?” asked Derek’s boda driver as they sped away. 
“Canada,” replied Derek, “but I’ve lived my whole life in Africa.”
“Then you’re an African,” laughed the driver, “My name is Boda Tiger. And your name?”
“Mr Derek.”
Ducking into the vortex behind Tiger’s back, long enough to keep his flame lit, Derek sparked up a joint. He took a long, thick toke, held it in for a few seconds then blasted the smoke back out again in a fit of coughing. He was careful to keep the blunt cupped in his hand, lest one of the many traffic cops along the road spotted it’s distinctive trumpet shape. Not that any of them would bother chasing him. In all likelihood they lacked the air time on their cell phones even to call it in. Nevertheless, there was no mistaking the aroma emanating from the back of Derek’s boda
Through pie-eyes and Wayfarers he surveyed his surroundings. In the vivid light of a clear morning, the city looked like an old master’s painting to which children had been allowed to add daubs of their own brightly coloured paint. He marveled at the panorama, as three of Kampala’s seven hills came into view, each one crowned with a communications mast rising above some minister’s gimcrack folly, looming over a clutter of orange rooftops that increased in density towards the valley, as though the literal consequence of an economic landslide. Brilliant sunshine and stark shadows gave everything a vividness that was almost too intense to bear.
He thought about Pedro, his erstwhile driver, rastafarian partner-in-crime, at this moment in time, riding his softail and growing his dreadlocks on the Mexican coast, after vowing never again to return to Africa. Things just weren’t the same in KLA without him. 
He spotted a large Billboard featuring one of his former girlfriends, gazing back at him with those familiar bedroom eyes while sucking salaciously on a sweating bottle of lager. Consequently, he did not notice the police officer coming up behind him on the back of another boda, and was startled by the hand that suddenly gripped his right shoulder, causing him to jerk to the left, free of its hold, then send his boda boda fishtailing. “Stop!” cried the afendi, who was wearing the blue madoa doa camouflage of the regular police - the busting kind - and about to attempt another lunge, “You’re under arrest!”
“It’s the Po Po!” shouted Derek, flinging his burning spliff into a gutter, “Tu wende!” Tiger rapidly accelerated out of reach, then began to weave through the traffic at high speed. The afendi remained in hot pursuit. “Listen, sebo,,” said Derek, clasping the motorcycle’s rear metal rack with both hands, “do whatever you have to do, but I will pay you twenty thousand shillings if you outrun this fool.” Without looking back, or even in any direction, Tiger responded by making a sharp right, clear across a busy thoroughfare, narrowly escaping a collision with an on-coming mini bus taxi, then swerving to the left into Old Kira Road. With no hesitation. the pursuing boda made the same erratic move, and sped after them down the hill. 
“Turn right here,” barked Derek, and Tiger veered hard through a narrow gap between a wooden phone kiosk and a ramshackle scrapyard, then down a bumpy road that led into the mud-clogged, lunar landscape of Kamwokya (pronounced Kam-wo-cha), a clamorous shanty town wedged between Kololo hill and the swamps below. Driver and passenger swayed savagely from side to side, as they zigzagged through the slalom run of potholes, people and livestock. Dodging a work detail of boys filling in the rifts in the road with rocks and soil, they narrowly missed another boda driver who was involved in a melee between two shop owners, then swerved to avoid an infant who’d wandered into the road crying. 
The backstreets were crowded with more animal life than human: half a dozen cows, a goat on a rope that ran directly across their path and throttled himself, a gaggle of geese that chased after them until dispersed by the blue afendi still hot on their trail. Even kaloles took flight, those ungainly, lappet-faced storks that rummage around Kampala’s dumps like ugly spies, but are among the most graceful flyers in the African sky. Tiger burst through a line of laundry, then sped back out on to the main road, immediately hitting a speed bump that sent them skyward after the storks.
In the brash equatorial sunlight Kamwokya was a riot to the senses: the sight of village belles in drab clothing sashaying between yellow Mobile Money cubicles and illustrated hair saloons, the odour of roasting goat fat and open sewers, the flavour of exhaust from the taxi ahead, the din of car horns clashing with DVD stalls, and the bump to the ass of potholes within potholes. 
Their boda barely missed a matoke seller sitting straight-legged by the road, beside half a dozen sizable bunches of dark green bananas, then sped past hardware stores, iron gate makers, butcheries (the preferred local spelling), a pork joint where a dozen young men were huddled around two pool tables, the Pleasure Hotel, Valey Inn, a stall displaying piles of mattresses and plastic containers that tumbled in their slipstream, scattering rainbow-coloured wares all across the road. It was all a haze to Derek, even as they passed a group of pretty young women shouting, “Muzungu! Muzungu!”, as he remained insensible to everything but the pursuing afendi on the boda behind, now caught up in a mess of mattresses and containers. 
Tiger was careful to avoid the shit-mottled, viscoelastic waste water flowing in and out of people’s shops and homes, and decelerated as they approached a five-metre wide stretch of it where the road dipped below the surface. Barely clearing their feet, they proceeded cautiously through the slough, swerving at the last moment to avoid a well-known, car-sized pothole concealed beneath it. 
The pursuing afendi was not so careful, and drove straight through the middle, hitting the hidden pothole with an impact that caused him to be soaked from head to toe in sewage, and brought the chase to an abrupt end. Derek and Tiger stopped to high-five each other on the other side of the puddle, then drove off through the throng of market goers. “At least it’s Friday,” said Derek, relaxing his posture. Friday was market day in Kamwokya, and he knew the police officer and his driver would easily find a change of clothes. Still, he dreaded the next time he ran into that afendi.
As they approached their destination his thoughts turned to the phone call he’d received thirty minutes earlier from the American. After fourteen years everyone had given up on ever finding Johnny Oceans, dead or alive. Now, suddenly, he was back. But from where? Derek was keen to find out and, as Tiger pulled into the Kisementi car park, he searched for his old friend through the dazzling reflected glare of countless automobile surfaces surrounding its drinking establishments. “There he is,” he cried, spotting a man seated on the front terrace of Fat Boyz Bar & Grill, which boasted “Warm Beer - Lousy Food”; there was no mistaking that Roman nose. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Reunion

Excerpt from the first draft MS for PIRATES (Cutting Edge Press) © Greg Cummings

Continued from The Chase...

Derek paid Tiger, then dashed up the steps to give his long lost friend a heartfelt hug. Johnny Oceans had a full head of black hair, a pukka shell choker around his neck, and a large, rugged black watch around his left wrist. He was well-tanned, physically fit, and dressed in a turquoise Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Except for an expression of inner contentment, he looked much the same as he had a decade and half ago. “Wherever you’ve been hiding, its obviously done you the world of good, rafiki,” said Derek, grabbing a seat. A waiter arrived to take their order. Oceans asked for a Coca Cola, and although it was still not yet midday Derek ordered a cold Club beer. 
“The last time I saw you was 1998,” said Derek. “We were out scuba diving on the Malindi-Watamu bank, about twelve kilometres off the Kenyan Coast, totally baked, I seem to recall. You signaled you were going to surface.” Derek laughed, thrust his thumb upward a few times, then shook his head in disbelief. “I continued on my solo dive for another ten minutes, ten goddamn minutes, but when I got back to the boat you had fucking vanished. No clue, no note; nothing!
“I thought you’d be OK,” smiled Oceans. 
“Drifting on the open sea with no fuel, hapana, I was not Ok. I was in fucking peril. Luckily, Azziza Nshuti came along in her speed boat”
“Madame Nshuti, the Congolese smuggler. Jesus, where have you been
“Is that why you didn’t report me missing for a week?”
“Listen, man, there was no way I wanted to get caught up in that ordeal. Johnny Oceans, member of the notorious DeVini family, Meyer Lansky’s gaming connection in the 1950s, disappears and I’m the last person on earth to see him alive. Uh-uh! No thank you. And besides, I thought you’d show up sooner or later. I just didn’t expect it to be fifteen years later.” 
A cloud eclipsed the equatorial sun, followed by a refreshing breeze that transformed their shirts into fluttering flags and took the heat out of the day for an instant. Then the sunshine returned, plastering the walls, awnings and car park with a blinding light that soaked up the midday shadows like a sponge.
“Did those gorillas give you a hard time?”
“You have no fucking idea! It was like Godfather meets Lord of War. The day those gorillas arrived on the Kenyan Coast is still fresh in my memory like it was yesterday. I remember Azziza was about to catch her flight back to Kinshasa and the two of us were just chilling in the sand. I spotted them through the heat haze, a hundred metres away, tramping up the beach towards us, side by side: the three Wise Guys. Only a gumba from New York shows up at a beach resort in a rayon track suit.” 
“What did they say to you?” asked Oceans, chuckling.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe the charm offensive. The fat guy, sweating profusely and dabbing his jowls with a hanky, asks in a high-pitched voice, ‘Are you Derek Strangely?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ Then he asks, ‘Who’s the mulli?’” Oceans could not contain himself after that, and doubled over with laughter, extending his hand all the while to indicate Derek should hang on before continuing his story. “Not a good move,” continued Derek after his friend had regained some composure, “Madame Nshuti was no mulli.” 
“What did she say,” asked Oceans, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“Let me see if I can remember her exact words. She stood up - she was an imposing woman, with stunning good looks - and she said, ‘It’s clearly a joke that you men are called wise guys. But if you want to last a day in Africa, you’ll be wise to show the locals more respect.” Then she left for the airport, without even kissing me goodbye.”
“I’m so sorry, dawg…he he...You got to remember, those paisans had never before left the Tri-state area. To them Africa was somewhere east of Bronx Zoo.”
“Yes, well, as the last person to see you alive, I ended spending a lot of time with your paisans. Bobby, Jimmy, Petey, Tony… Do you have any relatives with names that don’t end in ‘y’?”
“Sure, Sal, Luca, Rocko...”
“Well, your gumbas took over the Blue Marlin Bar for a whole fucking week, and ran up a huge tab which they never paid. They complained about everything - the lack of sausage and peppers mostly - and did whatever they fucking pleased. The matatus flipped them out; they wanted to whack the drivers of those damn bus taxis. And the bugs; they fucking hated the bugs. One time Petey got up in the middle of the night and started shooting at the goddamn geckoes on the walls of his room. I told him geckoes keep the bugs away, but he was having none of it.“
“Oh man, I wish I’d been there to see that.”
“I fucking wished you’d been there. I tried my best to entertain them, being a safari guide and all. But those wise guys had no interest whatsoever in going on safari, not fishing, diving, seeing any of the sites. All they did was drink alcohol all day long, that is when they weren’t trying to muscle-in on the local forex racket. That didn’t go down too well. Swahili Muslims don’t take too kindly to being called pigs. Your boys even asked me if I wanted to be their coke mule.” 
Oceans stopped laughing, shook his head with incredulity then said, “That’s my family, Derek, not me…”
“So?” asked Derek, taking a slow swig of his beer during which he eyed his long, lost friend inquisitively, “I’m curious to know what had happened to you. Did you go back to the old country, lay low in your ancestral village while things blew over, or what?” But Oceans steered clear of the subject, glancing around at the other people on the terrace to see if anyone was listening in on their conversation. 
“Let me tell you something,” he said, moving in closer, “When my Uncle Dino started out in the business in 1920s he was just a kid, working as a craps casino dealer at Rex's Cigar Store, in Steubenville, Ohio. Before long he was the youngest ‘bust out’ man in Steubenville.”
“What’s a ‘bust out’ man?”
“He’s the guy whose job it is to switch crooked dice in and out of the craps games, the sort of Baboo the gangsters who ran the rackets hated, that is until they hired him to ward off undesirables, hustle the spacones with lots of money to burn, and break lucky winning streaks.”
“Was he a cheat?”
“More a montambanco, what you call in English a mountebank. The whole family’s like that. It never really dawned on me until I moved to Kenya in the Nineties to manage Nyali Casino for Uncle Tony, Dino’s brother. Typically, some guy I’d never seen before would start playing the tables, and Tony would tell me to go talk to him. ‘Why should I talk to him when he’s an asshole?’ ‘Because he’s a big spending asshole, that’s why.’ Uncle Tony knew everything about the financial status of every American gambler alive. And when their luck ran out, he knew just how much credit to extent to whom.“
“Sounds like a worthwhile talent to have in the gaming business.”
“Yeah, but it could be used to devastating effect. I remember one night when only a handful of hard-core gamblers remained in the casino, including two brothers from New York. One was playing with high stakes in a closed game at the blackjack table, and losing excessively; his brother had already lost a shit load of money. Before long they both came up and asked Uncle Tony for credit. ‘You're OK,’ he snapped at one of them, "but not him," jabbing his finger at the other, who walked away in humiliation. Later that night the brother he snubbed hung himself, and Uncle Tony ordered one of the casino workers to plant $10,000 on his body before informing the other brother, to make it look as though his gambling losses were not a factor in his suicide, that he had other motives for taking his own life. When the surviving brother failed to pay his debt after he returned to New York City, who dunned him for the payment? Who else? The mob!” Oceans drank back the last of his soda, and burped. “I had to get the fuck out!”
“So? Where did you go?”
“You really wanna know?”
“Damn straight!”
Oceans stood up and surveyed the bar, beat his chest a few times nonchalantly, the smiled back down at Derek. “I’ll tell you everything, but not here. C’mon, we’re going on safari.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Under Stars

Journal entry, written at a refugee camp in Ethiopiaaged 23 © Greg Cummings

Sun, Nov 17th ‘85
As a crescent moon sets in the west wrapped in whisps of cloud, Jupiter follows closely like an older brother. The mountains open up to devour them, and the stars become brighter - a choir of a billion worlds rising to a crescendo of light, like the chorus of Beethoven’s choral movement from the Ninth. Now the moon is a Cheshire grin brimming on the edge of the black mountains; Jupiter, it’s one eye released from a wink, behind. A wink and a grin ‘good night’ and the chorus of the sky erupts.

Camp Bete's agents are asleep in their tents - “From Jarusalem with Love” - sunk deep in a pool of dreams from another place far away - a starker reality. The sporadic voices of refugees in their village under the stars, sing a distant rhythm of life, a promise of a more hopefull life, but the end of a different promise. Like the Cheshire grin of the moon now burried, the chorus of a greater calm now stronger, these brief journeys of salvation must wane, and the celebration of life, the ebbing formal flux of existence, must become itself again.

A Hyena whoops in the distance.