Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Sophie turned over and stretched languidly, delirious with happiness. Making love with Tony had left her boneless and lazy, reluctant to get out of bed. The past two months had passed by in a blur. Never in her life had so many new experiences been packed into such a short period of time.
They had attended live concerts, dined at restaurants all over Lavangwa, gone clubbing, walked on the beach and gone on a picnic. One weekend in particular stood out. Friday had been a public holiday making it a three-day weekend. They attended a Sam Fan Thomas live concert that evening together with their friends – Josh, Carol, Helen, David, Isaiah and Freddo.
On Saturday morning the group drove two hours to watch Bancushi’s national 15s rugby team take on Namibia in their Rugby World Cup qualifying match at the Rukuna Stadium. After they returned to Lavangwa that evening, Sophie and Tony took the last flight out of the city to the coastal town of Meribo where they spent two days frolicking on the beach and clubbing at night. They flew back on Monday evening, giving Sophie enough time to recover before her Tuesday night shift.
She had no problem getting two days off to enjoy that weekend because a new employee had been recruited to work at the switchboard at the beginning of August. Paul had come from Jamili Hotel, a four-star establishment located in the capital. He was paired with Bill on the afternoon shift for a two-week orientation period after which Bill took one month’s leave, just after the long weekend.
Daniel was currently on leave and due back in mid-October. Once he returned to work, Martin would take leave. For now Sophie was back on the night shift. Martin worked mornings with Paul and Bill the afternoon shift, an arrangement that suited her perfectly.
Sophie glanced at the clock on the bedside table. 2pm. She had the luxury of sleeping in on Saturday mornings now that her first semester over. Tony had picked her up after her shift at 8am at the junction leading into the hotel. She was still jittery about fellow employees seeing them together and he had respected her wishes. Whenever they made plans to meet, he picked her up at the junction or they met in the city centre.
Her apartment building was quite noisy during the day and she rarely slept more than two or three hours after her night shift. Tony’s house was so quiet that she had actually managed five hours. She stretched again, threw off the covers and got out of the four-poster bed. She put on one of Tony’s shirts and padded barefoot into the living room.
He lived in a two-bedroom cottage a stone’s throw from the mansion inhabited by his parents, his younger sister Makena who had been born with a degenerative bone disease that eventually confined her to a wheelchair and his two step sisters, Rose and Susan. Both the main house and cottage were on the 200 acre Tezi farm but at the opposite end from the hotel and golf course.
The cottage had been fenced off for privacy and had its own gate. As far as décor went, it was a typical bachelor pad. The open floor plan comprised a living room, dining room and kitchenette. White walls with brown leather seats, animal print rugs on the wood parquet floor, chrome coffee table and gold satin drapes welcomed her into the living room.
Silver accessories interspersed with artwork added sparkle to the brick fireplace which was dominated by a large silver antique mirror. Red embroidered throw pillows added a touch of whimsy and softened the otherwise sleek design. A solid oak dining table and four chairs separated the living room from the kitchenette with its dark brown wooden cabinets, white tile counters and brown floor tiles.
Tony lay stretched out on the sofa reading a property magazine, a glass of orange juice on the coffee table beside him. He wore red shorts with a white vertical strip along the side seams and a black tee-shirt. “Good, you’re up. Want something to eat?”
“There’s food in this house?” Tony grinned, not in the least perturbed by her barbed retort.
Sophie constantly teased him about the fact that his only skill in the kitchen was boiling water. His parents’ housekeeper Maria cleaned his cottage thrice a week. He took his meals in the main house when not eating out with friends.
Sophie was shocked to discover that Tony didn’t even know how to make a bed properly. “Didn’t you learn that at boarding school?” she asked in disbelief. He shrugged his shoulders. Sophie recalled her own experience at Kyani Girls where failure to make hospital corners was a punishable offence.
“I knew you’d wake up hungry so I ordered some meat from the hotel. It arrived a few minutes ago.”
Sophie smiled and walked over to him, leaned down and planted a kiss on his left cheek. “Bless you. I’m starving.” She sat at the counter and watched him retrieve a covered dish from the oven.
He took her favourite mango juice from the fridge and poured her a glass, then topped up his own glass of orange juice. Sophie washed her hands at the kitchen sink and dried them on a tea towel then resumed her seat at the counter. Tony removed two plates from a cabinet and put them on the counter.
They didn’t bother moving to the dining table. He pulled up a stool and sat at the kitchen counter opposite her. She lifted the dish cover to find a platter of beef, chicken, pork, sausage and lamb with roast potatoes on the side and a small bowl with kachumbari. The delicious aroma of roasted meat wafted out of the dish, making her stomach growl.
“What do you want to do today?” he asked as they dug in.
“Nothing. Just want to bum. What time is your game?” she replied in between bites of tender, juicy pork ribs.
“I was out pretty late last night. I’m wiped. Think I’ll play tomorrow. How about we just stay home and watch a movie or something?”
Sophie gave him a thumbs up. “Good idea.” They spent a quiet afternoon together, happy and content in each other’s company, oblivious of the dark clouds headed their way.
Titus Rabon watched the flames spread rapidly from the makuti roof of the kitchen to the main reception area of the hotel, helped by strong gusts of wind blowing in from the Indian Ocean.
Sudipta was right about one thing. Makuti, a traditional thatch made from dried coconut leaves, burns like a cardboard box. His hotel would be reduced to ashes in minutes at this rate. He sighed with regret as he watched his partner, Kenneth Matayo, mobilise the other hotel workers to evacuate guests from their rooms to the relative safety of the lawn by the poolside.
Several were coughing as their eyes watered from the acrid smoke billowing into the sky. The roaring flames lit up the night as the intense heat forced spectators to stand well away from the blaze. The tiny pops of exploding equipment was replaced by several large blasts, most probably the gas tanks exploding.
Titus had pooled his life savings with a loan from Bancushi Commercial Bank several years before and built the hotel in Meribo, which he named Palm Beach Resort. The hotel hadn’t been doing well in the last two years and he’d fallen behind in repaying the loan which now stood at Sh5 million.
For six months he negotiated with the bank to prevent his property from being auctioned. He exhausted all his appeals a week ago. That’s when Sudipta came calling. He offered a way out of the problem. Burn down the hotel and claim insurance. Sudipta promised to get the bank off their backs for the period of time it took to get the insurance claim paid.
If they refused to go along with his plan, the hotel would be auctioned in a matter of days and they would lose everything. Kenneth quickly embraced the idea as an ideal solution to their problem. Titus wasn’t so sure. He recalled their last conversation on the issue two days before, which had quickly degenerated into an argument.
“Bola Karenga is my friend. I’m not going to defraud his company,” he shouted at his partner.
“Reinsurance exists for these kinds of risks. Liberty Insurance will get compensated. Bola won’t lose a cent,” Kenneth countered.
“This is arson. They won’t pay.”
“Of course they will. Sudipta has assured me he has connections with the local police. The fire will be ruled an accident.”
“What if one of the employees talks?”
“No one will know about it except you and me. I will start the fire myself after the kitchen is closed, when we have a skeleton staff on duty.”
“Guests could be injured or even killed. Have you considered that?”
“That’s why we decided to start the fire in the kitchen. It will give us enough time to get everyone out of their rooms before it spreads. Relax. Sudipta and I have thought of everything.”
“How will you start the fire?” As soon as he asked the question, Titus held up his hand. “Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”
“From past experience, we know the fire brigade will take at least 30 minutes before they get here, maybe longer. They always run out of water. In the last fire at Taj Villas, they had to use the swimming pool water to put out the fire. So there’s no way they will save the hotel. Then all we have to do is wait for a big fat insurance cheque.” Kenneth rubbed his hands in glee which irritated Titus no end.
“I don’t know what you’re so happy about. This is wrong. I won’t allow it.”
Kenneth glared at his partner. “We’ve sunk our life savings into this place. You would rather it be auctioned by the bank?”
“No.” His tone was fierce. “But there has to be another way. This is too drastic.”
“I’ve already explained that nobody will get hurt. We’ll transfer the guests to other hotels. In a few months we get a cheque for Sh12 million and pay off the bank loan. Everybody is happy. Now weigh all that against losing everything we’ve invested. Which option makes more sense?”
“The hotel is worth Sh10 million,” Titus pointed out with a puzzled frown.
“Sudipta suggested we pad the claim a little, get some extra cash for updating the interior décor after we rebuild,” Kenneth replied with a shrug of his wide shoulders.
Titus stared at his colleague in astonishment. Kenneth was tall and wiry at 45, and handled the marketing of their 70 room hotel while Titus did the accounting. He was impulsive, always bubbling with new ideas on how they could grow the business. Titus was his polar opposite; 55, short and overweight.
He was the more level headed of the two and many times he’d had to apply extreme measures to curb his partner’s enthusiasm. Kenneth had shared many scatter brained ideas over the course of their partnership, but this was extreme even for him.
“You’re going to do what?” He stood up with palms flat on the desk and towered over his partner. “Arson isn’t bad enough, you want to add extortion to the list of crimes this will involve?”
“They’re already going to pay out ten, so what’s an extra two million? And we do need the money. One reason business is so bad is we’re competing with newer hotels. Compared to them, this place looks shabby. The cash will give us the best chance at making a go of this place, without debt.”
“And you don’t care how we get the money? The end justifies the means?”
“In this case yes.” Kenneth stared defiantly at his partner. “I like and admire Bola but I won’t choose him over my livelihood. You have three children to think about. You’re willing to sacrifice their future over a principle?”
Titus sat down heavily and his shoulders sagged in defeat. “How sure are you that Sudipta won’t double cross us in this deal?”
“Crooks who come up with stuff like this can’t be trusted.”
“Let me worry about Sudipta.” Kenneth waved away his objections. “Do we go ahead?”
Titus put his hands over his head, elbows on the table, closed his eyes and thought hard for several minutes. For months he had wracked his brain trying to come up with a solution to their bank woes.
He had sold most of his assets the year before and put the money into repaying the loan which helped for a while, but he couldn’t keep up with the steep interest rates the bank was charging. Once they defaulted and penalties kicked in, their options quickly ran out. He finally looked up at his partner and nodded wearily. “On one condition.”
“We only claim what the hotel is worth not one shilling more.”
“It’s the only way I’ll agree to this.” Kenneth finally nodded after a long silence filled with tension, as each man stared the other down, determined not to relent.
The sound of sirens brought Titus out of his reverie. He watched as firemen from the Meribo Municipal Council unhooked their hoses and directed powerful jets of water at the fire which had already engulfed most of the buildings, including the cottages. As Kenneth had predicted, the single fire truck ran out of water and they turned to the swimming pool.
By then it was too late. The fire had become uncontrollable. Titus watched as his pride and joy was reduced to a smouldering ruin. He stayed long after Kenneth shepherded their traumatised guests, most still in shock, a few wailing about their lost belongings, into the hotel shuttle and left to arrange their accommodation at nearby hotels. Sunrise found him still at the scene, watching the dying embers of the fire, wisps of smoke rising before dissipating in the wind, contemplating the night’s events.
Kenneth had patted him on the shoulder as he was leaving and tried to console him by saying they had no choice. But in his heart Titus knew you always had a choice. He had betrayed a friend. Betrayed his conscience. Nothing would ever be the same.
Luke watched his sister for several minutes as she mopped the living room floor. “Sophie, what’s wrong?” he finally asked, worry creasing his forehead.
“Nothing.” She rinsed the washcloth in the bucket of soapy water she’d placed on the grey and white vinyl tile floor, moved the coffee table to one side and continued wiping.
“You’re cleaning the house.”
“I always clean the house.”
He raised his feet so she could wipe the area beneath the sofa where he sat. The room had simple furnishings. A three-seater sofa set with a floral slipcover, coffee table and sideboard in pine wood and sky blue cotton curtains. Books of every description were crammed into a rickety bookcase in the corner.
“You cleaned yesterday and you just got off the night shift. Aren’t you sleepy?”
An hour later she started on the windows. Luke put aside the newspaper he was reading and contemplated the last few days. He and Sophie kept such different working hours that he found it difficult to keep up with the goings on in her life. But he knew something was up.
People always expressed surprise to discover they were siblings because they didn’t look at all alike. Luke had taken after their mother, both in physique and temperament. He had light skin, average height and stocky build. Luke was an open book, warm and laidback. He took life as it came and rolled with the punches.
He didn’t share Sophie’s drive and ambition, which led to stress when things didn’t go the way she planned. When that happened, she became withdrawn and cleaned obsessively.
“Are you meeting your friends today?” She was rarely home on Saturdays, her day off.
“Are you sure everything is alright?”
He tried probing further in vain then left the house to meet his friends for lunch in the neighbourhood pub. He returned at midnight to find the house in darkness. He assumed she had decided to go out with her friends but when he peeped into her room he realised she was asleep.
Another strange sign. Sophie rarely slept before 1am. He made a mental note to talk to her in the morning then went to his own bedroom. Luke was a lark unlike his sister and no matter what time he slept, woke like clockwork at 5am, even on weekends. Sophie was a great cook and did all the housework except on Sunday mornings when Luke cooked breakfast for both of them.
He was a voracious reader and stayed in bed for two hours devouring the last few pages of Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes. He emerged from his room to find Sophie already up, making pancakes.
“Morning,” she greeted him cheerfully with a bright smile. He looked at her closely and noticed the red, swollen eyes.
“Have you been crying?”
“Your eyes are red.”
“I didn’t sleep well.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Everything okay at work?” Luke persisted.
Sophie placed her arm casually around his shoulders and gave them a tight, brief squeeze. “You worry too much. I’m fine. Your pancakes are getting cold.”
He pulled the plate towards him, rolled up one and took a bite. “You’re not eating?”
“Later. I’m not hungry.” She placed a small wooden stool next to the window, climbed on it and began to take down the curtains.
“What are you doing?”
“Washing the curtains.”
“You’re not going to church today?”
“Don’t feel like it.” Luke stared at her mystified. Sophie never missed church unless she was working. What was going on? Was it that time of the month? He knew she suffered from bad cramps. But then why was she doing all this cleaning? When she got cramps, she swallowed painkillers and rested in bed or on the sofa for a few hours. So it wasn’t cramps.
He mentally ticked off her strange behaviour, his breakfast temporarily forgotten. She was doing an unusual amount of cleaning, wasn’t getting enough sleep and her appetite had seemingly vanished.
“Are you sick?” Sophie paused in the act of taking down the second curtain and turned to her brother, startled.
“Of course not.”
Luke raised his brows in suspicion. “Then why aren’t you eating?”
“I told you, I’m not hungry.”
“You can deny it all you like but something is wrong.” He picked up his cup and finished off the rest of his breakfast in silence. Sophie washed the curtains then cleaned up the kitchen. They barely spoke the rest of the day.
She stayed in her room and only emerged to cook lunch, a spicy stew, steamed cabbage and rice which she ate in her room after serving her brother. Luke spent the day on the sofa watching movies. That’s where she left him when she let herself out of the house at 9pm to go to work.
Sophie walked briskly to the bus stop, glad to be out of the house, away from Luke and his incessant questions. She went straight to the switchboard once she arrived at the hotel, not taking time as she usually did to catch up with her workmates in the locker room.
She wasn’t doing a very good job of covering up her emotions if Luke had figured out that something was wrong. If she couldn’t fool her brother, then she had no hope of keeping the truth from Maggie, her best friend in the hotel. Avoiding Maggie was her best option. Thank goodness Martin was on leave. At least she wouldn’t have to avoid him too.
By 1am the switchboard had quietened down. She programmed the wake up calls then started on her marketing class assignment. She completed it an hour later. She looked at the clock and sighed. Five hours to go. She had carried a novel but didn’t feel like reading.
She opened her bag and retrieved the test results she had been carrying around for a week. Oh God what am I going to do? The phone rang.
“Hi, how are you?” They had been dating for three months, but his voice still had the power to weaken her knees. “I haven’t seen you all weekend.”
“I had some things to take care of,” Sophie replied.
“Come by my place tomorrow?”
“I’ll pick you up at eight, usual place.”
“Don’t you have to work?”
“I’ll be late.” Tony’s voice was husky, flirtatious with intent.
Sophie bit her lip and sighed. She would have to tell him soon. Perhaps tomorrow. The rest of her shift passed uneventfully. She handed over to Bill who was now covering the morning shift together with Daniel. Paul worked the afternoon shift. Tony picked her up at the junction as promised.
“You look tired.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“Sophie tried to smile and failed. “I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep.”
“Good thing you’re coming to my place then. I have just the thing to help you.” He grinned at her wickedly.
Sophie wasn’t in the mood for lovemaking and didn’t rise to the bait. Once they got to his house he went straight to the bedroom and drew the curtains to shut out the bright morning sunlight streaming into the room.
“Tony, I’m exhausted,” said Sophie, taking off her jacket.
“Shhh,” he said with a finger on her lips before kissing her softly on the cheek. “I’ll give you a massage, then you can sleep.”
“Oh.” He had surprised her again. His ability to do the opposite of what she expected constantly amazed her. He put on a Kenny G cassette and the smooth jazz tones of Songbird filled the room. Sophie decided her news could wait. A massage from Tony was a treat she couldn’t pass up.
She undressed and lay on the bed on her stomach. The mattress dipped slightly as he moved behind her. Warm hands glided over her shoulders then up and down her arms as he rubbed massage oil into her skin. He increased the pressure slightly, kneaded her shoulders thoroughly then moved down her back, caressing her with longer deeper strokes.
He moved further down and kneaded her thigh muscles, alternating between his left and right hand. He rolled the flesh of her calves between his fingers then moved to her ankles. He took his time, never rushing until long minutes later when he nudged her to roll over.
He repeated the process, massaging her front until Sophie squirmed in arousal. She couldn’t help it. His hands felt so good on her skin. Finally, overcome by desire, she pulled his head down to hers for a smouldering kiss.
“I thought you said you were tired,” he murmured. She felt rather than heard his laugh, a warm rumble through his chest.
“I know what I said,” she whispered, nibbling at his lips. His lips captured hers in a deep kiss. It was a while before either of them spoke again. Sophie realised she had nodded off when she heard the shower running.
Tony entered the bedroom a few minutes later fully dressed in a grey suit, pale purple shirt and a navy blue and white dotted tie. He sat on the edge of the bed and put on a pair of black leather dress shoes.
“Do you have classes today?”
“No.” Sophie replied with a drowsy voice. “I decided to take fewer units. The workload last semester almost killed me.” Tony laughed.
“I’ll see you later.” He kissed her softly on the cheek. Her lashes drifted closed as sleep overtook her.
Tony returned from work at 8pm. Sophie had spent the intervening hours rehearsing what she would tell him while energetically cleaning a house that didn’t really need it and cooking dinner. She had quickly become weary of hotel food, which Tony ordered when she visited.
One random Saturday she asked him to drive her to the open air market at Mbukia so that she could buy groceries and cook lunch. He told her to make a list of the things she wanted, called one of the Woodville drivers and asked him to get them from the grocery at Jambele Arcade. At first Sophie was sceptical.
She bought groceries the way her mother had done for years. She visited the open air market at Ngairo once a week, selected the fruits and vegetables personally and haggled over prices. She didn’t even trust her brother Luke to get the freshest greens at the best prices let alone a hotel driver.
When he returned, she was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the foodstuff he brought. Tony later confessed that his family owned Jambele Arcade and they had been buying groceries there for years. He introduced her to Moses, the owner of the grocery shop on one of their trips to the bowling alley.
Moses told her to call him directly anytime she needed vegetables. He selected the best cuts of beef, chicken or fish at the butchery next door then loaded up everything in a taxi which delivered the groceries to the cottage. Tony settled the bill later.
Today she had cooked chapati, pilau, beef stew, fried chicken, steamed cabbage and a salad of grated carrots, cubed pineapple and sultanas. Sophie stared in despair at the food once she finished setting the table. It was too much even if she considered that he could eat the leftovers during the week.
“Something smells good,” Tony said as he walked towards her. He greeted her with a peck on each check. “You’ve been busy.”
Sophie smiled sheepishly. “Hope you’re hungry.”
“Starving actually. I missed lunch.” He spoke over his shoulder as he walked to the bedroom to change clothes. He emerged a few minutes later wearing grey sweat pants, a black polo shirt and flip flops.
Sophie decided to wait until they had eaten before telling him her news. She listened as he told her about his day, nodding now and then but saying very little. The moment arrived all too soon. She took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant.”
Tony stared at her for a long moment, then got up, went to the kitchenette, opened the fridge and removed a beer. He rummaged in a drawer for an opener. The hiss of the cap popping off the bottle sounded extremely loud in the dead silence that had enveloped the kitchen. He took a sip and returned to the dining room table.
“Are you sure?” She handed him the paper with the blood test results she had obtained from a clinic in the city centre.
He read it without comment, folded it and gave it back to her. Sophie squirmed in her seat as the silence stretched. She licked lips that suddenly felt dry and cracked, her throat tight with tension. She took a long sip from the water glass and stared at Tony whose face was inscrutable.
“Please say something,” she finally spoke, voice tinged with desperation as anxiety knitted her features.
“How late are you?”
“The doctor said it’s about six weeks. Make that seven. That was a week ago.” He drank his beer and remained mute, forcing Sophie to break the silence once again. “What are we going to do?”
Tony rubbed a hand over his brow. “I need some time to process this. Can we talk about it later?”
“When is later? Tomorrow? Next week?” Sophie pressed him.
“You’ve had time to sit with this. I only just found out. I need time to think. Okay?” His eyes blazed with an emotion she couldn’t identify. She decided to back off. At least he knew. Now they could deal with the problem together.
“Are you done?” She gestured towards his plate. He nodded. She cleared the dishes from the table, stored the leftovers in the fridge and washed the utensils. Tony walked into the kitchenette but didn’t speak. He took another beer from the fridge, moved to the living room and switched on the television.
She finished washing up at 10pm, an hour before her shift. She joined him in the living room and tried to read a magazine but couldn’t concentrate. She finally gave up, went to the bedroom and changed into one of the spare outfits she’d started keeping at his house for convenience when she slept over.
“I’m ready to go,” she announced, re-entering the living room. He glanced at his watch but didn’t say anything. He grabbed his car keys from the coffee table and followed her to the front door. They didn’t speak on the short drive to the hotel.
Sophie turned to him once they reached the parking lot eyes, filled with worry. “You’ll call me?” He nodded then leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She entered the hotel slightly mollified. Everything would be alright.