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?”
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.”