This was my first attempt at a novella. Its working title is The Orphans. It is mostly set in the rural Tanzania I remember from 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. All of it.
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 some disturbing things are 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.
From 10 January 2016, I am publishing The Orphans here as a serial in 59 parts; one scene each Sunday.
The full list of scenes so far published is here
The Orphans. Chapter Seven, scene two: Hurdles
These meetings were never easy, but this time, I was prepared for them.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” I started, “Before we move on to the business of today’s meeting, there’s something you all should hear.” Confused looks all round. I pulled the digital recorder from my bag and placed it on the table. “This is a recording of a conversation I had with Della Jont, less than a week ago.”
[Della’s voice] “Get back to Dar as soon as you can and finalise the divestment. You know my wishes, and you have my instructions and my full authority to carry them out.”
“I trust we’re all clear what we have to do,” I said, “so let’s have some progress reports.”
Fonseca bowled in first, “I still think what you suggest is foolish and dangerous, and not in the best interests of TanzCap.”
“I shall pass your concerns to Ms Jont,” I replied. “Meanwhile, her instructions are clear, wouldn’t you agree?”
“As are my objections, I trust.”
“Thank you, Mr Fonseca,” I concluded. “Mr Wangwe?”
Wangwe hadn’t achieved much; I could see that from his face. “The lawyers have no objections. They point out that the joint venture must still have 51% Tanzanian ownership, but that’s Jaxson’s problem, not ours.”
“Thank you. Mr Thakur?”
“There are no obvious bidders. I have been in contact with a number of large local businesses, but no-one wants to touch it. TanzCap is the only major Tanzania-based capital investment firm in the city and no other firm has any interest. The only option is to float our share of the company, to try to sell it on the stock exchange.”
Wangwe wasn’t happy with this suggestion. “The joint venture contract stipulates that if either party wishes to withdraw from the partnership and no single buyer can be found, that part can only be offered on the Dar-es-Salaam Stock Exchange with the consent of the other party, who must first be given the opportunity to purchase all the shares at their then-current value.”
“Thanks for that, Mr Wangwe. Jaxson’s owner is not in Tanzania this week, but I’ll put this to him as soon as he’s back in territory. We can do nothing until then. Mr Fonseca, perhaps you could make use of your no doubt extensive list of contacts to find out what the general sentiment is, concerning the legality and morality of the joint venture’s activities, and the effect this sentiment may have on a sale. And if you have any influence in the telecoms world, the line where I am staying was damaged by a stray bullet last night. It would help me immensely if it could be fixed quickly.”
“I will see what I can do,” he said.
My years as a forensic accountant had taught me to look for and recognise subtle signs. Fonseca’s surname was the same as that of Hannice’s maid, Kanene. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything; since the Portuguese colonisation of a lot of the area in the nineteenth century, Fonseca is not an uncommon name in this part of East Africa. I had noticed, though, that he didn’t ask where I was staying. That suggests that he already knew, and as I hadn’t told any of them anything beyond my mobile number, he must have found out himself. There are many ways he could have done that, including using contacts in the telecoms businesses to trace my location history from their log files. However, the most likely route was by being told by Kanene. More information filed away for future reference.
Either Fonseca was as good as his word, or the telecoms people were displaying unexpected efficiency, as telephone and internet services were reconnected by mid-morning of the day after our meeting. I called through to Paul Jaxson’s office to ask his PA, Marcia, to let me know when he arrived back in Tanzania. She was aware of the importance of that meeting and agreed to call as soon as she had his arrival details, so we could make an appointment. I also called Della to let her know how the board meeting had gone, and to keep my word to pass on Fonseca’s objections.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Della responded, “the deal with Jaxson was his suggestion in the first place, and I think he has an interest beyond that of advancing TanzCap’s fortunes. I have some suspicions about him, which I’d like to pass on, but they are no more than hunches. If I can find anything to support them, I’ll pass them on. Meantime, keep an eye on him, he’s a slippery customer.”
“I’m thinking that, too,” I said, and proceeded to explain my thoughts after the telephone repair.
As I replaced the receiver, I had the strangest feeling. Nothing I could put my finger on, perhaps a barely perceived sound or movement, but I felt sure that I was being watched. I turned quickly, and saw Kanene turn away from the door.
I called her back. “Is there something you want to talk to me about, Kanene?” I asked.
“No, Mama. I just check you are here,” she replied, perhaps a little too slickly, “I go make lunchi now. You like poach egg and toast? That favourite lunchi for bwana Knight.”
“Poached eggs on toast would be very nice, thank you, Kanene, and I think tea with it. Darjeeling, if you have it.”
I watched her retreat into the hallway and make her way back to the kitchen. As she did so, she turned and looked towards me with an expression I couldn’t really read, her eyes part-closed and what looked like a wry half-smile.
I fired up my laptop, intending to make a video call to Sophie. It had long been my habit to switch it on, then walk away and do other things whilst it went through its start-up routines. This day, I walked out to the gatehouse to see if any mail had arrived. There was none.
On my return, I found that my laptop had failed to start. A simple message was at the top of the screen, telling me that there was no system disk, which suggested that its hard disk was either not connected or had failed. I had a support contract with the people in UK who sold me the machine, so I called them for advice. Their first reaction was that I should switch off, remove the battery, replace it and turn it back on again. I did that – same result. They then said that it was most likely a hard disk failure, which was what I had suspected. They offered to repair or replace the disk, but could only do that at their premises. That left me without a working computer. Hannice had his with him in hospital and there was no spare in the house.
After an enjoyable lunch I took another trip to Hannice’s office and used his desktop computer there, intending to order a replacement laptop from UK. On the face of it, that was a cheaper option than buying one locally, but import formalities and costs would have eaten away at the cost difference and added days, if not weeks, to the time needed to get it to me. It made more sense to pay a visit to one of the local distributors. Quite close by, I found one that stocked many of the better-known makes. I bought a high-end laptop using the bank card that Della had given me, and had the technicians configure it and load software to my specification. Most of my data was backed up regularly to an external drive, so very little was lost. Any information that was missing, my guys in UK should be able to get back for me once they had my old laptop in their workshop.
I spent the following days completing the software configurations and restoring all my data from my backup disk, which had last been updated two days before the failure. Two days’ data had been lost, and four days spent unproductively. Things could have been worse; a lot worse.
The following Sunday, there being little I could do, I decided to try a little bonding experiment. I called Kanene.
“Kanene; can you prepare a picnic lunch for two for tomorrow? We can take bwana Knight’s Land Cruiser and go into the countryside. You can show me some of the more interesting sights.”
Kanene gave this some thought. “No need for picnic, Mama,” she said, “We start early, spend morning in Pande Game Reserve in Bunju, then we have lunchi with my friend at Zinga on Bagamoyo road. Real Tanzania village people, not tourist area. I took bwana Knight one time, he said he liked it, but perhaps he just said that and maybe not true. I think Mama will like it, though.”
“Do you need to let your friend know that we are coming?”
“Yes Mama. I call from telephone in my room.”
“Use this one, Kanene,” I said, indicating the telephone on the side table.
She called someone, presumably her friend. I could understand nothing of what she said. When she spoke Swahili slowly and deliberately, I could usually understand about a third of what she said, filling the gaps by what I liked to think of as intelligent guesswork. Her speech in this conversation was so rapid that I had no chance to pick up more than the odd few words, none of which were at all enlightening.
“Is done, Mama,” she said, replacing the receiver.