This is my first attempt at a long story/short novel/novella; call it what you will. Its working title is The Orphans. It is set in the Tanzania I remember from living there for a couple of years in the early 1980s, but some of the technologies used are much more recent. To that extent, it is anachronistic. Don’t forget, though; it is fictional, made up, lies.
The image on the left was my first bash at a cover. In a series of firsts, here’s its blurb.
Max Matham is a self-employed freelance forensic accountant living in a quiet village in Buckinghamshire. Della Jont is a hard-nosed businesswoman who presses Max into working for her, investigating alleged financial irregularities at an orphanage in East Africa. Max soon finds that although the finances are okay, there are some disturbing things going on at the orphanage, and becomes involved in a set of intriguing events involving orphans, government agencies, witch-doctors, an old university chum and a multinational pharmaceutical company.
During 2016, I shall publish The Orphans here as a serial; one scene each Sunday.
Get the link to the full list of scenes here
The Orphans. Chapter One, scene 4: Bush briefing and back to Della
As we walked to the orphanage Land Rover, I asked, “Okay, guys, what’s the story?”
“The doctor needs you to know some things,” one of the two men, Richard I think, said solemnly.
“I’ve just been in his bloody office; why the hell couldn’t he have told me himself?”
“The doctor believes the orphanage is bugged. There are some things he doesn’t feel safe discussing there.”
No more was said as we drove into the bush country for ten minutes. In a clearing a couple of hundred metres off the track, Sunday, who was driving, stopped the Land Rover. When I found out it was he who was driving, my first thought was, of course, ‘Sunday drivers – you meet them everywhere.’ We walked a short distance from the vehicle, and seated ourselves on the fallen trunk of a large tree. The air was filled with birdsong and insect calls, and I could hear something in the middle distance that sounded like a troop of monkeys or baboons squabbling.
“What’s going on?” I asked, “Why the secrecy? For pity’s sake, we’re talking about an orphanage, not something out of a James Bond movie.”
“The doctor told us that you might be upset and confused, but he didn’t want to risk anyone saying anything that could cause trouble if someone else heard it. This is a big worry for him.”
“Okay, I can understand that. Either the place is bugged or he’s paranoid or both. What’s his beef?”
The two men explained that every few months, some of the youngest HIV-positive orphans were taken to another place where, according to what the orphanage had been told, they would receive better medical care. Dr Nchimbi had never been able to trace the source of the requests, but on a previous visit, Della Jont had referred to them in a way that suggested, that though they were not from her, they certainly had her blessing. No word ever got back that the orphans had arrived at their destination, or even where their destination was. The doctor had made discrete enquiries, but could find no information. He had, however, heard rumours of medical experiments, and was seriously concerned for the well-being of these children.
“What does he expect me to do?” I asked.
Sunday replied, “Find out what is happening here. You are kizungu—“
“European. You can go to places and ask questions no African can. You should see what you can find out in England, first. The doctor says you should report back to the boss lady, and see what happens next.”
I had no idea what I was expected to find out, or how I was supposed to do it. My trip here had been arranged and paid for by Della, to spy on Dr Nchimbi. Now he wanted me to spy on her. I weighed up the possibilities. Because of what I had already learnt, refusal could seal my fate here; on the other hand, agreeing to do it could have the same effect back home. Accepting that I was screwed either way, the prospect of becoming a double agent, though scary, was rather exciting – and, except for the last few days, my life had been rather short of excitement of late. Forensic accountancy, like any forensic work, is built on painstaking detail; excitement is rarely part of the deal. I decided to take the plunge, and informed Richard and Sunday of my decision.
We spent the rest of the morning working out a strategy. It was clear that they were expecting me to accept the job, and that they had been comprehensively briefed by Dr Nchimbi.
Having settled on who was going to do what – it turned out I was going to do everything – Sunday and Richard drove me to Songea, from where I boarded a scheduled flight to Dar-es-Salaam, the country’s former capital and still its main commercial city. The two-hour flight was uneventful; I didn’t fancy the look of the in-flight refreshments, and the in-flight entertainment was non-existent, save for a number of loud conversations that could well have been arguments but I couldn’t tell for sure. After landing, I made my way to a hotel close to the airport, where the orphanage had already booked a room for me. Typical of its genre, the room was best described as adequate. It contained a large double bed with a telephone and pad on the side table and, I had no doubt, a bible in the drawer; maybe a copy of the Quran, too. I didn’t check. The pine desk and chair were a tribute to function over form.
I asked the concierge at the hotel to book me on the first available flight back to Heathrow, and ordered a plate of sandwiches to be delivered to my room. The concierge called back soon afterwards to confirm I was booked on the flight leaving the following morning. I called the number I had been given in the dossier. A recorded voice said, ‘Leave your message after the tone, Max’. I left the flight number and date.
Andy met me at Heathrow and seated me in the limo. That was the last I knew. How the sedative was given, I didn’t know; I never felt anything like an injection, but it must have been that or possibly dermal absorption. All I knew for sure was that it was painless and quick-acting, and left me with an awful headache on coming round. Fortunately, the headache only lasted for a couple of minutes.
“What did you find out?” Della had a way of sounding pleasant, almost soft and gentle, but with an undertone of real menace. At least, that’s how it came across to me as I was, once again, coming out of sedation in Della’s plush, pink office.
I replied as soon as my head had cleared: “The books look okay, the buildings and facilities are in good condition, and the children appear happy and healthy. You’re right, though, in thinking that there are things going on that aren’t in their remit. The medical staff go out; in their own time, it has to be said; to nearby villages, running surgeries and screening people for HIV/AIDS, as well as dispensing advice aimed at slowing the spread of the dreadful disease. The cost of these activities is minimal, and if it can reduce the incidence of AIDS, it will mean fewer children orphaned and so lighten the load on the orphanage. I know it isn’t in their brief, but it has to be a good thing to do, right?”
Della looked pensive. “Of course you are right, as far as it goes. However, there’s a bigger picture that you don’t see. If you did, you’d think differently about the benefits of what they’re doing.” She didn’t enlarge on that, she merely stood and came around the desk to me. “Thank you for your help. I’ll have ten thousand pounds transferred to your bank tomorrow. We won’t sedate you to take you home, but we will need to blindfold you until you are on the motorway. Only a small number of people know where I live, and I aim to keep it that way. Perhaps after you have been with me for a few months, I’ll add you to that list.”
A few months? I thought this was a one-off job!
“You asked me to do one thing, Della, and I’ve done it. I want to go home, now. I have my own business to run, my own work to do.”
“My dear Max, as of today you are on my company’s payroll. You will find ten thousand pounds added to your bank balance every month until you are terminated.”
“Terminated how, exactly?” I asked, not at all happy with what I took from that.
“That will depend on the reasons for your termination, Max,” she said with a false smile, the way a snake smiles before striking. “With what you know about me already, I couldn’t possibly allow you to work for anyone else, especially not a competitor.”
“But I don’t know anything about you; certainly no more than I did before you had me kidnapped,” I protested.
“Max, Max, Max,” she said; condescendingly, I thought, “You would be surprised how much more you know about me and my operations than you realise.”
And you don’t know that I turned on mapping on my mobile at Heathrow, and it’s still on. I know where you live, lady.