The first book my wife received came in a brown envelope, postmarked Basingstoke, in August. It was a cheap paperback entitled Redemption of the Pagans. The cover had a group of people standing around a purple fire with a skull in the bottom left corner. There was no letter, note, or any way of identifying the sender. Now, I don’t much mind people sending stuff to my wife, but they at least have to say who they are. It’s basic decency; something pretty much in short supply in our time. The next book, Notes from a Dying People, came through a fortnight later from Jedburgh.
I suggested we discard them, but Saru was a bookworm, addicted to the psychotropic thrills of literature. She was a nurse at the Royal Ed. and worked a four night a week rota, two weekends on: one off. I strongly suspect she spent more time reading cheap paperbacks on taxpayer’s money than she actually did looking after the geriatrics on her ward. Anyway, she really got into this Pagan/Dying People author, Takura Masamba, because she was always on the hunt for post-colonial African lit. Masamba had died in 2008 and was being published posthumously.
That summer I’d been sacked—my role was consolidated as part of a cost-cutting and efficiency driven blah, blah—from the claims investigation dept. at Rae’s Insurance. All that really meant was that instead of having us in-house, the ogas at the top, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to outsource our work to PIs for whom they didn’t have to worry about sick pay, pension contributions, maternity, statutory holiday… the basic things that separate the civilised world from the unwashed world, you get my drift.
I’d opened up my own detective agency, put up a website and even done a bit of canvassing. My first case was a missing cat, paid for by Mrs Duncan, who was convinced her pet had been kidnapped for ransom. She paid me £250 and I retrieved the cat for her from the local animal shelter in Portobello. Truth is, the death of common sense is the only reason so many professions exist on this planet. My enterprise depended on having a nose for square pegs, things that fit where they shouldn’t fit, and finding empty gaps where there should be plugs.
Then there was a lull and I even considered the extortion gig, but figured I wouldn’t be able to afford the pet food required to keep such an operation going. I didn’t think Saru, who was allergic to fur, would much like that either.
My second case was a straight forward infidelity gig. Housewife in Musselburgh wanted to know why hubby was coming home so late from work all of a sudden. It wasn’t hard to put a tap on his mobile, GPS on the car, keylogger on his laptop to give us access to his social networks, and, for a little extra, I did a bit of surveillance. For a grand, Mrs Kelly got a file and reassurance that her husband was working extra-long hours to pay for their mortgage and take her out to the Seychelles for their third anniversary. This was all stuff she could have figured out for free if only she’d asked him, or, better yet, had a bit more faith in the sanctity of their marriage vows.
I was in an autumn rut, looking for more work, as the leaves changed colour. I ended my Sky subscription, cash was getting tighter and tighter, when Saru came up with a whacky theory. See, she’d been reading these Masamba books and on the sixth one, she’d become a little suspicious. The way she saw it, Masamba’s first two novels, published when he was alive had been duds. It was only after he died that his career blew up and he rocketed onto the bestseller lists. Kind of the same thing that happened to Stieg Larsson.
I was pretty desperate, so much so, I went online to find out a bit more about the author. A cursory Google search yielded a wealth of information: he was born in Bindura, he was uni drop out, he liked rap and his favourite musician was Tupac Shakur, he wrote a few short stories for some mid-market magazines… There were a couple of images of him, a slight, light skinned man with a goatee, almost always looking into the distance with knitted eyebrows. It was a variation of the pseudo-intellectual look most authors have on their jackets.
“The problem I have is his books keep getting better,” said Saru, waving a copy of The Final Crusade in my face.
“Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen.”
“When a writer dies, he has one, maybe two unfinished manuscripts in his drawer, right? And then perhaps they dig into his back catalogue and pick up pieces from his youth, rejected in his lifetime, which they polish up and sell.”
“So what? It’s the same guy’s work, shouldn’t matter, should it?” I replied.
“Then you’d expect regression in the earlier works. Masamba is getting more philosophical; he’s leapt from simple linear narratives to high-octane, post-modern splintered narratives.”
“So one explanation could be someone else is writing the new books, kinda like what they’re doing with James Bond these days.”
“It’s the same author because the books are grouped around the same thematic concerns,” she replied, a little exasperated with me.
That was when I picked up the books she had and went to read them in my study/office. I’d converted the downstairs bedroom into my own space, complete with a desk, filling cabinets, and visitor’s chairs for clients who never came. I took a bit of China White, it made me alert and hyperaware, and I began to read the books on a Monday. By Thursday morning, I made the decision to call Craig Duran, my old boss. I asked him to check if they’d been any claims on Masamba with Rae’s. Potluck, but if I was going to go for this, then I needed to know there might be cash at the end of it. Craig came back to me in the afternoon with a bone.
“We got burnt a bit on this one, Tadiwa,” Craig said in his grizzled ex-copper accent. “He had stacks of insurance with us. We couldn’t prove anything either way after the accident, so we paid out half of the 72K life policy, because there was no body, and 8K on the car.”
“That’s 44K to the widow?”
“Who else?” said Craig. “I think this one’s closed, if you ask me. The coroner made his decision and that’s that. If you want back in, this wouldn’t be the file for you. We’ve already got the live claims outsourced, so if you wanna chase historicals that’s fine by me. But if you really want my advice, get a new job. ”
“What would you give me for it?”
“Shit Sherlock, you really wanna waste your time, don’t you? I’d give you ten percent plus expenses. No win, no fee.”
“Twenty plus expenses. You’ve already paid out, this is recovery.”
“I’ll get it cleared for you.”
I hung up, with my first real case on the deck. Problem was I wasn’t getting no expenses up front which meant I had to eat into my small redundancy. If this thing didn’t come through, I’d lose out, big time. I told Saru, I’d just become a literary sleuth, and if her hunch was wrong, well, let’s say she’d still be paying the bills while I went job hunting.
The first and most obvious thing I had to do was visit the widow. It’s a simple truism that all one has to do is to follow the money. She got the insurance, she was getting a mint off the books, so she was first on my list. Her name was Wendy and she appeared on a couple of web pages, doing stuff to commemorate her late husband’s memory. She’d speak at festivals and panels about his work and give audiences a taste of his inner life. Twas modern myth making at its most elemental and it fed the readers, keeping the publicity machine churning, since Masamba couldn’t make an appearance himself.
I showed up at her place, a-not-so-bad bungalow in Trinity, a good neighbourhood. The front was well looked after, flowers and all, and there was even a small hole in the lawn where the for-sale sign must have been not so long ago. I’d rung up and said I was a writer for The Contemporary Literary Review and made an appointment for an interview.
She opened the door in a pink, silk nightdress. I could tell by her giddy look, she’d started on the bottle early. Who could blame her, since her life now revolved around flying from city to city, doing the circuit, recalling anecdotes about her late beau?
“Thanks for agreeing to see me. I’m a huge fan of your husband’s work,” I said as I walked on the cream carpet into the living room with a colourful, bohemian theme.
She studied me like a bored cat, then offered me a drink. I asked if I could smoke and lit up right there. She was hot, a little too hot for a writer’s missus. Either Masamba was some kind of stud or she must have known there’d be money along the line if she stuck with him for a bit. Some women just know how to pick their horses.
“After he died, how did you realise he had left this wealthy archive?” I asked.
“I didn’t. His publisher handles all that. I’m not much of a reader myself,” Wendy replied.
“So how many manuscripts do they still have from him?”
“They bring out a book a year. That’s all I know.”
“And then you go touring?”
“Only when I have to. His publisher does a lot of gigs and then there’s academics and all sorts who’ve gotten in on it. I only get wheeled out a couple of times a year to talk about the kind of guy he was.”
“Let’s go back a bit. How did you feel when you heard he’d passed?”
“I was devastated. I was at my mum’s when the police came round. It was the worst day of my life. A horrible way to die like that, in the sea, all alone…” Wendy began to cry. I made some soothing noises, got up to give her a little hug, but she pushed me away. “I’ve never had closure. Each time I talk about him, it opens the whole thing right up again.”
I, of course, apologised for dredging up those sad memories. As far as I could tell, she was telling the truth and she had nothing to hide. She didn’t evade any questions and only said what was necessary. I suppose she’d had been through all this a thousand times.
“His books are making a lot of money now. Have there ever been any problems with his family?” I ventured.
“No, never! I keep some for myself. I give them some. A little I give to a charity set up in his name to help young writers in South America. Money is just money, it can’t bring the dead back to life,” she mused, sipping on her Remy Martin. I agreed and drank a bit of mine after stopping my recorder which had been going off the whole time.
I had no doubt in my mind Wendy thought her husband was dead. That left the small possibility that his publisher was using a ghostwriter and capitalising on his memory. The question though is, how could they have known he’d be a posthumous hit? Maybe they’d seen the sales spike of the one or two truly authentic works after his death, then they thought they’d ride the wave. I wouldn’t make any money off this conjecture, and it was damn near impossible to prove. A sensible option would be to cut my losses, which amounted to a bit of fuel in the tank, a few phone calls, and a bit of burnt pride calling Craig for a slice of humble pie.
Since I didn’t have any other work waiting for me, I decided to take a drive along the A1 through Fort Kinnard and I headed down towards the border. My Vectra chewed up tar as I listened to Jah Cure, smoking and thinking. His sultry reggae music about love almost made me forget that he was a convicted rapist. Part of me was repulsed by this, but I found his voice and his music irresistible all the same. Then again, Michael Jackson was a kiddie fiddler—allegedly—and look at his fan base. I thought about all this as I cruised along the coast, window rolled down, the wide, grey sea to my left, as I breathed in the cool salt air.
I parked on the verges near the stretch before Berwick-upon-Tweed, where Masamba’s Honda Civic 2.0 had veered off the road and plunged down the cliff some twenty to thirty feet, into the icy embrace of Neptune’s arms. I took out the brown file with the coroner’s report on my passenger seat, got out, stretched my back and walked along the gravel to the spot where fans had laid wreaths for him. This non-descript location had already become a place of pilgrimage for those poor souls in our modern culture who found some meaning in his literary works. There’s nothing like the death of a young artist to stimulate a following. It’s that aura of unfulfilled potential, the sad yearning that the remaining work contains a sliver of a genius never to fully blossom.
On the 29th of November 2008, Takura Masamba was driving down this stretch on his way to London for a reading. Tracks showed he was cruising at about 60 miles per hour when he veered off the road into the abyss. Looking at the distance between the road and the sea, I simply couldn’t get my mind round it. Was he drunk or high? Well, there was no toxicology report. Maybe he was tired and sleepy, lost concentration for a minute and then he was gone. But this was the first stretch of his six or so hour journey to London, way too soon for him to be so tired. Why didn’t he simply fly or catch the train? They didn’t find a body. Yeah, it could have been washed away by the sea, but his seatbelt wasn’t on, which may mean that he actually got out of the vehicle. And swam? Not after a plunge like that, his spine would have been buggered, the airbag would have been right in his face. The door was open though. But there was no way he’d have driven without his seatbelt on because of that annoying pinging alarm you get in new cars for that. The more I looked at the scene, the more I was convinced that there was no way Masamba had gone down with that car. I remembered a story that had been in the news a few years back about the canoeist John Darwin, who faked his death so his wife Anne could claim on the insurance. You see, that’s the thing about deaths in open water, the body can go anywhere and the coast guard can only do so much to find it. I can think of a hundred reasons why a struggling author, maybe in debt, would want to fake his death.
Next thing I knew I was on the phone to his publishers in Glasgow.
I felt like a bloodhound that’s been given a scent, just a thin trail that appears and disappears as the wind blows, as I drove down the M8 the next week. This time I was a PhD student from the University of Cape Town doing a paper on the Ethnoaesthetics of the Shona in Masamba’s work. Living on the East Coast teaches one a healthy condescension for Glaswegians, but I had to put all that aside as I parked up in the multi-storey near the Buchanan. I looked at the charges and felt sick.
Free 8 Books were tucked away on Virginia Street, a short walk down from George Square in the heart of the city. I wore dress pants and a checkered cardigan to look the part, a 6/10 on the scruffy spectrum. They were expecting me when I pushed the buzzer. I walked up one flight of stairs, through a corridor, into a largish open-plan office.
The computers on the desks were new, Apple I think, they had piles of papers everywhere, a chic mess, exactly what you would expect from a publisher except the tapping on modern keyboards doesn’t have the sonic ambiance you get off old fashioned typewriters. There was a dog prancing round the office—very modern—and along the walls they had blown up pictures of the covers on Masamba’s books alongside some middle-aged white guys in black and white who I figured were long-dead authors. I shook hands with Andrew the publisher and he took me to his desk at the far end of the room where he had two good windows, one to the left and the other behind him. He was man in his mid-forties, a slight paunch, tanned like he’d been on holiday recently.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he said.
I told him I took it black with four teaspoons of sugar—heaped. If this were a movie, I’d have snooped around on his desk for clues while he was away and somehow his colleagues wouldn’t have noticed. That’s just not how it works in real life. Not in a room with two men, two women and a young girl who must have been an intern, unless child labour had suddenly become legal again in this part of the country.
“It’s always exciting to get visitors from abroad,” Andrew said, placing the mug in front of me. “Musamba has had some very strong titles for us.”
“That’s what Jacaranda in South Africa say too.”
“Ah, you’ve been to see them as well. To be honest, they don’t shift anywhere near the volumes we sell here and in the US.”
“Understandably,” I replied and sipped on my coffee. It was strong, but he’d got the sugar wrong. I raised the cup at him and said, “This is a good brew.”
I asked him a few general questions about Free 8, just to show some interest in his firm. It was a young publisher, ten or so years old and doing well on the back of a few bestsellers and some midlist titles. You can’t force people to answer your questions, not unless you’re some cop in a Middle Eastern country where the standard issue interrogation kit involves a pair of pliers. In this game rapport is the top currency.
“So, Andrew, how many novels of his do you still have to go?” I asked with the coy smile of a super fan.
“That would be telling,” he replied with a wink.
“Come on.” My smile grew wider, Cheshire cat.
“We get one envelope a year, usually in April.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Since he’s died, we get one envelope with a manuscript each year. This year it came from Costa Rica, last year I think it was Burma. We don’t know when the last one will be,” said Andrew shrugging.
“Then how do you know this is actually his work?”
“An editor knows his author’s style. Each MS comes in a brown envelope containing a letter written in Masamba’s own hand and the letters all carry the same date, 28 September 2008. The way I figure it is that he wrote in a wild burst before he died. Then he entrusted the manuscripts to a solicitor, maybe even a close personal friend to send to us at a certain time each year.” He saw the trap and added, “Before he died, he told me he knew his next twenty novels, all he needed to do was to get them down. He worked really quickly. His first novel was banged down in two weeks. The manuscripts need a bit of sprucing up when we get them, they’re like really good first drafts.”
“What’s his next book, I’d really love to read it,” I said, easing off the gas a bit.
“It’s called Dreams of Bahia and it’s his best yet. We’re sending advance copies out to reviewers because we want it primed for the Christmas market.”
Of course Andrew was kind enough to give the poor African student a copy, under the strict instructions I was not to share the text with anyone, though I was free to blog or talk about it, so long as I wasn’t too heavy on spoilers. A fishy smell lingered in my nostrils even as I accepted my gift and left.
As I sat at home with Saru that night, I relayed to her the info I had on the case. Now, usually my job involves discretion, but in a way this was her case so to speak, though I wasn’t going to go so far as to invoice her.
“At least you got me a copy of the latest novel before anyone else,” she said as we were having supper.
“What we have here is a goose-that-lays-the-golden-egg syndrome,” I replied chewing on my pork chop.
“What do you mean, Tadiwa?”
“Both the publisher and the wife know that something shifty is going on, but they won’t dig too deep. They keep their noses clean and hope this gimmick keeps rolling on for as long as possible. Envelopes from around the world, my backside.”
“A bit of intrigue sells books in this day and age,” Saru said. “I can’t wait to get into this new one.”
I could save myself a bit of money and pull out now. Even if he was alive, he could be anywhere in the world. If I put this thing out there, I risked looking like a conspiracy nut. My new firm and CV didn’t need that at this stage. I spent the next few days pouring over my notes, trying to see if I’d missed anything. I hit loads of China White and coffee to keep my mind in gear and tried to project myself into the author’s psyche. Whichever author that was, the ghostwriter or Musamba. Mostly, I spent hours sat in the chair behind my desk, bouncing a tennis ball off the wall and catching it again. When I wasn’t doing that, I was on the computer scrolling through information about his career. There were biographies, his parentage, a series of rejections in his early twenties, his break with Pagans written during a residency in Itaparica, critical acclaim and poor sales, a small African writing award in 2006, articles about literature and a few reviews he wrote. There was a YouTube video of him speaking in Berlin. The problem with the net is that it can tell you everything and nothing at the same time.
Friday morning Saru came back from work raving about the new novel. She said it was a meditative journey of a man leaving Christianity for the traditional African religion of Candomble. As she described the book, I felt like it was capitalising on the vacuum left by Christianity’s lack of confidence in Europe, which explains the rise of alternative practices. It sounded very much like a Paulo Coelho knock-off. I grabbed the book off Saru, kissed her and immediately went to Thomas Cook in the city centre.
The next week I endured the humiliation of security checks at Edinburgh, the torture of waiting in the purgatory that is Heathrow, and then I caught my flight to Salvador in Bahia, connecting through Rio. No man should ever be forced to endure four airports in a twenty-four hour period. Along the way, I watched bad movies and endured airplane food and the indignity of being sat next to the loo, being hit by wafts of odour each time the door was opened and shut.
I took the cab from the airport to the city centre, melting under the tropical heat as I listened to my Portuguese language CD. The driver thought he was F1 and weaved us through the highway like it was a video game. I fastened my seatbelt and knew better than to ask him to slow down. We wheezed into the city surrounded by a thousand construction sites, condos being built next to favelas, the signs of progress and new affluence. The bright colours of the buildings, greens, pinks, oranges, blues, yellows, were a stark, welcome contrast to the grey of Edinburgh I’d left behind.
I dropped off in the Pelourinho and followed the footsteps of the unnamed protagonist from Dreams of Bahia to a hotel in the tourist quarter. I always travel light and my only luggage was a backpack with a couple of shirts, clean pants, socks, underwear and a few other essentials. There were hawkers selling curios, small shops with wares opening out into the street, a couple of street musicians and pale skinned tourists in dark sunglasses out and about. I checked into my hotel, put the air con on arctic, freshened up and hit the streets.
It was easy to see why Takura Masamba would have chosen Salvador. The population of this ex-slaving city wouldn’t be out of place in any West African country I’ve been to. He could be anonymous here. There was a liveliness, a vibrancy in the quarter, a break from the sterility of Europe. My lunch was acarajé with prawns and okra, made up by the woman in flowing baiana dress sat at the steps of the sky blue museum dedicated to the author Jorge Amado. This was the square where masters brought their slaves for a good old fashioned public whipping. Across the cobbled tiles was the magnificent Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, a church built by black slaves for black slaves at a time black and white couldn’t worship the same God side by side. I figured their descendants still lived in pretty much the same way. Washing down my acarajé with cheap Skol beer, I could see why an artist making very little money might be tempted to move here. In this place, he would have tried to recapture the muse that gave him Redemption of the Pagans. A few pounds could stretch much further here than they ever could in the UK.
I spent the rest of the day wandering in and out of tourist shops and museums. In the evening I hung out listening to Afrobeats at Sankofa’s, the Ghanaian club on the Ladeira De São Miguel. I met a young lady and we got to chatting, her in Portuguese, me in English. It was a nice conversation too. I told her I lived in Escócia and I was out here for a brief holiday, one month max. Beers were cheap and I bought her a Skol. She said something about having a bambino who may have been five, ten, twelve, seven years old from what I could tell. I said something about kids being a gift from God. She offered to go to a hotel with me for a massage. I figured this was all part of Brazilian hospitality until the barman politely indicated that she was a working woman and if I spent more time with her, she might expect compensation without transaction. I apologised in English about the misunderstanding, bought her another beer, and left for my hotel.
I slept well and the mosquitoes ate well, too, if the welts on my arms were anything to go by. My arms were itchy but I knew better than to scratch them. I took my map and went back out into the city, down the famous lacerda, which I read was the oldest elevator in Brazil. I crossed through the market to the lancha terminal where for R$5 I paid for a ticket to cross the straits to Itaparica, a small island which I could just about make out in the distance.
The turquoise coloured sea was so clear I could see fish swimming in it, as I sat at the bow of the boat, waiting for it to fill up before we took off. The old Portuguese fort stood in the water and around it were luxury yachts and sailing boats anchored at the harbour. Between that and the deep blue sky, I had that feeling I had when I first bought an HDTV, the richness of the colours was astounding, it was like I had entered a new reality. The way the sun skimmed off the choppy waters as we sailed beneath the dozens of tankers and container ships waiting to dock off in Salvador. Come what may, I already knew one day I would return to this place and I wished I’d brought Saru with me so we could make this crossing together for the first time.
We docked off at Mar Grande in Itaparica and I took the Kombi to the far side of the island. For a few extra reals, the driver dropped me off at the Instituto Sacatar once his last fare was off. It was at this ex-nunnery, which had been converted by the American architect Taylor Van Horne into an artist’s retreat, that Masamba wrote his first published novel. I pulled the string to ring a bell above the little gate and waited to be admitted. A guard in blue overalls and gum boots came round shortly and showed me to the administration block where I met Alexio, the administrator who spoke English.
“I’m a scholar from Edinburgh University with an interest in African literature and I am studying one of your fellows, Takura Masamba,” I said as we shook hands.
“The Zimbabwean writer? We have so many creatives coming here, dancers, visual artists, photographers, poets; some you remember, others not so much,” Alexio replied.
“I believe he stayed here in 2005.”
“Yes, but he is dead now, isn’t he?”
“Maybe for my research you can tell me what he was like when he was here.”
The phone rang and Alexio asked me to excuse him. He picked it up and began to speak with someone in rapid Portuguese. I looked out the window to the studio on wooden stilts, with glass all round. At the far end of the compound was another studio that looked Japanese in architecture. There were palm trees on the green lawn that led to the fence and from there, the beach which looked enticing even at low tide. Outside I heard a dull thud, a mango falling from the big tree near our whitewashed admin building. Peacocks strutted on the lawns and I wondered how this would have impacted Masamba’s mind at the time he was here. Seeing the sunset, the locals in shorts and bikinis, waking up every day to this small slice of paradise. What could this place do to a poor writer, freshly embarked on his new career?
“We have a guest book signed by each of our fellows when they leave. Maybe you would like to see it,” he said.
I saw Masamba’s entry in which he had put four hearts round the corner of each page. In it he spoke about what a profound experience it had been, how his pen could not stop flowing during his two month residency here, and he thanked the staff in turn, each by name. As far as Alexio could tell, Masamba had never been in touch with the institute again. He was very helpful. People want to talk, they want to tell, it’s the fifth grader in all of us. I was led on a tour around the place, took a few photographs on my phone and left Alexio, promising to visit again, should time allow.
There was now not a shred of doubt in my mind that Masamba was here, hiding somewhere, penning new novels. Perhaps he walked by Sacatar unnoticed from time to time. I went along the coast, past old colonial style houses, to the centre which had a few hotels, bars, and some shops. Horses without riders trotted on the sand. Children played football on grounds with makeshift goalposts. As I was walking, one particular place caught my attention. It was a small bar called Gringos with a banner with a Brazilian flag and a South African flag at each opposite end. It looked like the typical expatriate hangout, and this was where I decided to lay my snare.
The bar was tiny, more the size of a corner shop, most of the space in the middle was taken up by a pool table. But this was Brazil, the punters wanted to sit outside on plastic chairs, in the sun, anyway. I went there most evenings and made small chat with the barman who wore a ponytail and had a subdued Afrikaner accent. I told him I was a professor in English, here on holiday while working on my new book about the evolution of new Englishes in the Caribbean. Every evening I went back, bought a few beers and watched the sunset. Sometimes I would catch a fishing boat or two. I would sit back and listen to the chatter in half a dozen or so European languages around me. I only had so much money on me, and I could only keep this operation up for a fortnight at the most. In all that time, my quarry, did not show.
On my last night, I took the lancha back to my hotel in Salvador. I rung Saru across our four hour time differential and told her I had failed. She’d picked up extra shifts while I was away, she told me. I hung my head in shame in my little hotel room as I listened to the soothing words of reassurance coming from her. I might not have been a great man, but by God I had a great woman behind me. I told her I loved her and I would be on the evening flight home the next day, which was a Friday.
I checked out of my hotel room at 11am and walked around the city with my back pack. My passport and wallet were safe in the zipped up extra pockets of my khaki cargo pants. I saw some capoeiristas prancing around, doing their martial art, half-dance, half-deadly. My mood was dark and foul. I could taste defeat. The whole thing now looked like a foolish quest. Ex-insurance fraud investigator sets himself up as a PI, flies round the world and… I’d return home with my tail between my legs and start looking for a new job. A few months from now, I’d find something in motor insurance or security in a shopping mall. I was only in my thirties and beginning to feel the pinch of the big bad world in the corners of my shoes. The age of chivalry was long dead and what was the use of going round, scuttling about with a lance. I felt sick and tired of it all.
The traffic around was loud and chaotic when I felt a slight vibration on my thigh. There was a text message from Saru that said: “five more days.” She’d rebooked my ticket and put money into my account so I could afford a cheap room until Tuesday.
I caught the bus back to the city centre and got on the first lancha back to Itaparica.
Sunday night, I’d visited all the bars in Itaparica and was back stalking in Gringos when he arrived. He was darker, wore a bushy beard down to his chest, and in his shorts and flip-flops, he looked like the sort of character you don’t want to mess with. But there was no doubt that the guy ordering a beer was Takura Masamba. I made as though I was looking on my phone, snapped a few photos with the flash off, and sent them to Craig. Within a minute I got a one word response: “Motherfucker.”
I stood up and walked to the bar.
“Boa, amigo. fala Inglês?” I said, knowing that if I started in my bad Portuguese it wouldn’t spook him out.
“Pouco,” he replied.
“I’m Lewis,” I said.
“Pablo,” he replied, reaching out to shake my hand.
I pointed to the pool table and challenged him to a game. Then I ordered two shots of Cravinho, slipping into the role of the wealthy tourist looking to chum a local. He broke and I played the next ball, aiming for a stripe but failing to get it in the pocket. I quickly learnt the pockets on this table were unforgiving, they lacked the smooth V shape and spat out the ball if it wasn’t aimed straight in. I did most of the talking, telling him about my plush university job and I how I wanted to pack it all in and move to Brazil because only when I was here could I really feel alive. He nodded as though he understood every thought and feeling going through me. Around midnight we were very drunk when I cried:
“Shit, I’ve missed the last lancha.”
“There’s still the ferry from Bom Despacho, but I don’t think you can catch that now either.”
“Damn,” I said. “Ah well, at least it’s a warm night.”
He looked at me for a minute or two, thinking then he said, “You can spend the night on my sofa.”
We staggered under the starry sky to his place up the hill, a few streets away. Stray dogs howled in the night. They were a menace he said. He was pensive and meditative when we reached his place, and from this vantage point we could see the black sea and the yellow glow of Salvador at night in the far off distance.
While he slept in a drunken slumber, I crept round his place, which was full of books in English and a few titles in Portuguese. Cockroaches scurried in the kitchen; the sink was full of unwashed dishes. This was a typical bachelor’s pad. A British passport under the name Mark Sturridge was stashed under a pile of papers in a cabinet in his bedroom. I took photos and sent them to Craig. I will admit a little guilt to abusing his hospitality in this way, but I was only doing my job.
I was far away, on a plane home when his world unravelled. Anyone who remembers Ronnie Biggs knows extradition used to be a bitch in Brazil. Not anymore. The police in Itaparica got him for traveling into the country on a false passport. By the time news broke in the tabloids back home, deportation was all but guaranteed.
I arrived home to Saru waiting for me at the airport. There was no flag waving but it felt like a hero’s welcome all the same. She even lifted a foot up when she kissed me. Once Masamba was back in Britain, I could collect my 8.4K plus expenses, and Craig even had a few new jobs lined up for me.
I got a letter from HMP Saughton in summer from Masamba asking me to visit him. As far as I was concerned it was a shut case. Rae’s had got their cash back, plus interest, which was my sole stake. The law had hit him with fraud and another charge relating to his fake passport. They slapped him with five years; a first offender on good behaviour could expect to be out in two maybe three years max.
Masamba was in jeans and the green gen-pop sweater of his wing in the prison when I went in to see him. He smiled and sat opposite me.
“How are they treating you?” I said.
“Like a king,” he replied. “It takes a few weeks to get over the internet withdrawal, but after that you’re fine.”
“No hard feelings, hey,” I said, offering him a tray with coke, crisps and a bar of chocolate from the visitor’s kiosk.
“You never got round to asking the question who sent your wife those books and why, detective,” he said with a grin on his face.
I let out a breath of air and told him I didn’t give a damn. All that mattered for me was that Rae’s got their money back. If the cops were interested in anything else, that was their job, not mine.
“I wouldn’t have left you those breadcrumbs if I’d known you were that sloppy,” he said.
“You had an accomplice known only to yourself. That’s the guy who mailed the manuscripts. Or you could have done it yourself, travelling back and forth on that passport. Wendy sent money to a charity which she didn’t know was really you, so you had a few K to spend each year. None of that matters to me.”
“Dreams of Bahia was number one for twenty two weeks. Nothing like the publicity off the back of a scandal to boost numbers.”
“Wendy’s filing for divorce, she’s gonna take you to the cleaners, and you’ll still be in here for the next hundred and fifty six.”
“In that time I will have written a memoir. I think I’ll call it Resurrection.”
“Good for you. But my wife no longer reads your work; she thinks you’re a low life, so you’ve lost a great reader already.”
“Pity, because after that, I’ll write a bestselling prison book. People love that sort of shit. Remember Jeffery Archer? It’s not enough to be a writer anymore. You must be a personality too.”
“You are devouring yourself for your craft. Careful, there might be nothing left of your soul when you get out,” I said to him.
Before I left, he told me he liked that last line, “Careful, there might be nothing left of your soul when you get out.” He said that he might use it in a story one day. I told him he could do whatever he wanted. And so I left him in the cell he’d built with his own smugness and self-delusions. I didn’t give a damn.
T.L. Huchu’s fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Interzone, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Shattered Prism, Electric Spec, Kasma SF, The Sockdolager, Thuglit, One Throne Magazine, & the anthologies AfroSF and African Monsters. He is a creative writing PhD student at Manchester University. Between projects, he translates fiction between the Shona and English languages. He is not to be confused with his evil twin @TendaiHuchu. www.tendaihuchu.com