Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Oliver Zimeli fumed as he read the previous day’s intelligence reports provided by his juniors.
Much of the material in the thick file was pretty routine and he had browsed through quickly until he came to the part detailing the telephone conversation between Luke and Carol from the phone tap in Tony Karenga’s office. A shiver of dread worked up his spine. Dwanje was going to hit the roof when he found out about this.
His instructions had been explicit. No one was to make a move against the Karengas without his approval. What games were Benjamin Yasi and Sudipta playing this time? It could only be them. The information he’d dug up about Sophie Gitwana’s twins had been sealed.
He hadn’t shared it with anyone, preferring to keep that little nugget to himself in the event it may prove useful someday. Now someone else had beaten him to it. He picked up the phone. “Get in here.”
A short wiry man entered the office a minute later. Zimeli’s office was a typical government office of a senior official. Dark wood panelling, red carpet, heavy wooden desk polished to a high shine and black high back chair. Grey steel cabinets lined the walls on two sides. A large window with grey venetian blinds overlooked the parking lot.
The Special Branch occupied three floors of Dante House in the central business district. That was public knowledge. Unknown to many however, the basement was also the preserve of the intelligence outfit. Ten soundproofed rooms with double walls six inches thick, initially meant to be strong rooms for storing cash and valuable documents had been converted to torture chambers.
The steel doors were five millimetres thick, the walls built with reinforced concrete to resist fires and deter intruders. The chambers each measuring eight feet by ten feet by seven feet were painted completely black or red to absorb all light. Special piping in the roof and walls provided ventilation. The Special Branch installed controls to flood the cells with freezing water or blast them with hot gritty air or clouds of dust.
Intelligence officers interrogated critics of Dwanje’s regime here. They deprived detainees of food and kept them in ankle deep freezing water all night with a single naked bulb in the middle of the ceiling casting a harsh yellow light, making sleep impossible.
After a sleepless night, each dissident was frog marched into a room stark naked and questioned for hours by a panel of intelligence officers sitting in a semi-circle, obscured from view in the semi darkness, as the dissident sat or stood under a harsh spotlight trained on him.
Those who proved particularly stubborn had their fingernails plucked out using pliers. The same pliers were used to squeeze their testicles and apply electric shocks, rendering them impotent.
“Sit.” Zimeli’s voice was curt, his genial eyes narrowed in anger. “Only you and I knew about Tony’s Karenga’s children. Who did you tell?”
“Sudipta. Is there a problem boss?” the younger officer asked innocently.
“That information was classified. Why didn’t you check with me?” Zimeli snapped.
“After you gave clearance to share the original file with him three years ago, I assumed he had clearance for this as well. When he came and asked if we had any additional intel on Bola, I told him about the children.”
Zimeli stared at him for a long moment, then removed a paper from the large sheaf in his hands and passed it across the desk. “Read this.” The officer read the transcript of the telephone conversation then looked up, fear in his eyes, the consequences of his actions at last dawning on him. “What the fuck were you thinking? I trained you better than this.”
His junior flinched. Zimeli was swearing. It was supposed to be a bad thing when Zimeli cursed. He rarely lost his cool, no matter how hairy things got. “Clear your desk. Finding those children is now priority one. I want every agent on the case. Recall everyone on leave. You have 24 hours to comb every inch of Lavangwa and find those children.”
He gestured towards the door indicating the meeting was over. The young officer stood and walked to the door. “Azizi.” He stopped and turned. “If those children are killed before you find them, you will share the same fate.” Azizi nodded and scampered out of the room.
The two men crept into Makoko at dusk, dressed in black from head to toe, backpacks slung over their shoulders. They followed the main path into the slum, home to approximately 80,000 people, majority casual workers in Lavangwa’s industrial area; others watchmen, cooks, gardeners, cleaners and maids for the middle class in the suburbs.
The hard packed dirt road into the slum was only wide enough for a single car to pass. Women lined both sides of the road sitting in front of charcoal jikos, cooking all manner of food. The various aromas mixed and mingled as they wafted from the cooking pots into air that was rapidly chilling as night descended on the slum.
At the beginning of the row sat five or six women frying fish, a similar number cooked chapatis on heavy iron pans, the next group stirred sufurias of githeri and beans, another bunch in the row boiled only sweet potatoes, arrow roots and maize, another specialised in traditional greens as well as spinach and sukuma wiki. Others friend mandazi and samosas and those next to them matumbo, chicken legs and necks, the parts discarded by suppliers of Lavangwa’s thriving fast food outlets.
People on their way home stopped to buy their dinner, which was measured out using different size cups into clear polythene bags commonly referred to as juala. Cow and goat milk as well as soup was also on sale. Once the customer specified the quantity he or she wanted, the seller poured the milk or soup into the juala which was carefully knotted at the top to prevent spillage. Behind the row of women cooking, vegetable stalls sold all manner of groceries for those who preferred to cook at home.
The two men slipped into a narrow footpath and made their way to Kosovo village at the heart of the slum. A heavy sweetish scent of bhang hung in the air from the numerous joints lit by young men, idling away the hours before going to bed.
Twenty minutes brisk walking along the narrow footpaths separating the cardboard shacks with tin roofs, jumping every so often to avoid pools of raw sewage and mosquito infested stagnant black water brought them to a concrete house, larger than its neighbours. It had an iron sheet roof and sported a fresh coat of paint.
This was the headquarters of Chike, powerful slumlord and leader of the Kosovo Boys. He owned 100 shacks in the slum which he rented out for Sh700-2,000 a month. He had built commercial toilets and charged residents Sh5 for a shower and use of the latrines. Chike controlled the illegal power connections in Kosovo village.
Residents who wanted electricity connected to their houses had to go through him and paid Sh250 a month. Chike had several Bancushi Power engineers on his payroll who did the illegal connections for him. He derived additional income from protection fees, garbage collection, shops and bars in the slum run by his gang.
Every matatu that ferried passengers along Buja Road paid a daily fee of Sh100 to the gang. Matatu owners who wanted to join the route paid an entry fee of Sh15,000 to be allowed to ply the route.
The guard at the door nodded at Faki, the undercover agent who worked for the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), and rapped on the door three times. The door opened and the two men walked into a spacious room with a red cement floor, lit by a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, occupied by six men who looked to be in their early twenties.
All were smoking cheap tobacco which they had rolled themselves using thin strips of white paper, filling the room with smoke. A wooden shutter covering the small single window in the room had been opened slightly to let in air but did a poor job of ventilating the place. Two beefy men, sat on stools on either side of the door. The other four sat on a five-seater red velvet sofa set which took up most of the space, with a wooden coffee table in the middle.
A 24 inch colour television stood against one wall and next to it an expensive music system. Posters of reggae and hip hop artistes were plastered all over the dirty white walls. Most of the men wore faded jeans, t-shirts, black jackets and heavy boots. Chike wore a navy blue tracksuit with white stripes, brand new Adidas sneakers and a black cap worn backwards.
He was about 5’2, dark and skinny with a short beard and moustache. He wore his hair cropped close to his skull. Chike’s small stature and handsome features masked a ruthless streak. The very mention of his name sent shivers down the spines of many residents of Makoko. Faki had warned his companion not to underestimate him and at all times defer to him. He had a lightning quick temper and would react at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Faki seemed to be well known by the group and greeted each man with a fist bump. He was 29, just a few years older than the gang members. “This is Patrick Lusebo, the good friend I was telling you about who needs your help,” he introduced his colleague. Patrick shook hands with the group then took a seat directly opposite Chike.
He opened the side zip of the backpack and removed a photograph which he handed to the gang leader. “Those are the children who were kidnapped. We believe they are being held somewhere in Makoko.”
Chike scanned the photograph, then handed it to the man on his left. He flicked his finger and two of the men silently left the room. The two guarding the door also went out and joined the single guard outside.
“These are my commanders.” He indicated the two men seated on either side. “If I decide to help you, they will take charge of the operation under my direction.” Patrick and Faki nodded at the men then turned their attention back to Chike. “Faki briefed me, but I would like to hear from you what happened and what you expect from us,” he told Patrick.
Patrick narrated the story of the kidnapping. “We only have 48 hours until the deadline expires. Whatever you need to get this done, just ask. My employer is ready to do whatever it takes to find his children. Here is a deposit of Sh100,000 to get you started. Inside are 50 copies of the photograph I’ve given you.”
Patrick and Faki handed over their backpacks. Chike looked at his companion on the right who took the bags and opened them. He inspected the contents, then nodded at his boss.
Chike rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “After we locate the children, what then?”
“Faki and I will take over at that point. Your men won’t have to go in, just secure the perimeter to ensure the kidnappers don’t escape. If they are being held in an apartment block, we’ll need your men to evacuate tenants from the neighbouring houses so that we keep casualties to a minimum if there is a shootout.”
“If the kidnappers escape somehow, I want a guarantee that my boys will not be harassed by karao. We had nothing to do with this,” said Chike.
“Understood,” Faki assured him.
“Does that mean you will help?” asked Patrick.
Chike nodded. “We start tonight. Be back here at 6am. If we find them before then we will contact you immediately, through Faki.”
“I will go update my employer then come back,” said Patrick. Chike stood up and the others did the same.
Patrick and Faki left the room as Chike and his lieutenants huddled around the coffee table, speaking in low tones. They walked back to Lango where they had left their car parked at a petrol station, a beaten up Mazda which wouldn’t draw undue attention or attract thieves. Faki dropped off Patrick at another petrol station on Buja Road where he had left his Defender. Patrick drove straight to Thatwa Ridge where Tony waited for news together with Sophie and her brother Luke.
They fanned out into the slum in pairs and melted into the darkness. Almost 100 young men systematically went through the slum, knocked on doors and spoke the code word that got them instant entry.
Nobody messed with the Kosovo Boys. When they knocked, you opened the door or risked it being smashed in. They ransacked shacks, searched every nook and cranny then turned to the silent owners who having gone through such exercises before, observed the proceedings with boredom or mild anxiety at worst.
Have you seen any strangers in the last week? Any new neighbours? Something out of the ordinary? Nothing specific to indicate what the gang was looking for. By midnight word had spread throughout the slum. Kosovo Boys were looking for something or someone. No one could tell for sure what. But one thing was certain.
No one would sleep until they found what they were looking for. And so the residents cooperated and hoped the searchers found what they wanted and fast. If they didn’t, they would resort to more extreme methods, like smashing kneecaps. Nobody wanted it to come to that.
One man however, watched the proceedings with more than a passing interest. He slunk after one pair of the gang members, slipping into shadows to avoid detection and got as close as he dared, hoping they let something slip. He lucked out after two hours. The pair met with a friend, also in the gang, who had been sent on an errand earlier in the day and so didn’t know what was happening.
“What are we looking for?” the newcomer asked in a low voice after they had moved a few feet away from the shack the duo had just finished searching. His friends looked around furtively before speaking. The man pressed further into the doorway he was hiding in and held his breath.
“Two kids, three years old, belonging to a mdosi in Thatwa Ridge have been snatched.”
“Why do they think they’re here?”
“They were taken from Lango where the mother lives.”
“Aah,” his friend whispered. “Let me take these to Chike.” He pointed to the package under his arm then continued on his way as the others continued the search.
The man quietly slunk off in the opposite direction, a sly smile on his lips. Interesting. Children of a sonko could only mean one thing. A hefty reward for information. He hurried off to the nearest telephone booth, two kilometres away.
He was a construction worker, part of the army of casual labourers that poured out of Makoko slum each day to look for work in industrial area. He was also an informant for the Special Branch and occasionally passed on tips about what was going on in the slum. Twenty minutes later he called Ivan Bisho, his contact in NIS.
Meanwhile, the search continued. The gang hit pay dirt at 3am. A young woman who worked as a cleaner in an apartment block just outside the slum, at the boundary with Lango estate, said that some men had moved into a flat on the second floor of the building a few days before.
She was taken to Chike’s house for further questioning and revealed that the men (she knew there were at least two from the voices she’d heard through the thin walls of the flat), had moved into the house in the middle of the night. One day the flat was empty. The next morning, it had occupants. No one had seen the men move in.
Her employer, a young man who worked as a salesman for a kitchen supplies company travelled a lot and was rarely home. He had given her a copy of the house key and she cleaned the house twice a week on Mondays and Fridays, washed his clothes, ironed them and occasionally cooked at his request.
The day before, she heard a child crying inside the flat occupied by the men. She got curious and asked the other maids in the building but none of them had seen any new children playing outside.
Chike had the contacts of every landlord in Lango. In the rare event that a tenant refused to pay the monthly protection fee, he sent his boys to put the squeeze on the landlord, who in turn prevailed on the reluctant tenant to pay up. Those who refused were usually evicted.
Landlords knew the price of not cooperating with the gang. Their buildings would go up in flames or their tenants would keep getting robbed and people would eventually shun the building. An hour later he was speaking to the landlord by telephone from a nearby telephone booth.
The man confirmed that he had rented out the house a week before. When he asked the tenant where he worked he said he needed the flat for only three months to temporarily house a relative who lived upcountry and required surgery at Mokeba National Hospital. The man paid three months’ rent in advance. Satisfied, the landlord didn’t ask for more details.
Thirty minutes later, Chike had hatched a plan. The gang would send one of its youngest members to the flat, a 16-year-old girl, who would pose as a cleaner looking for work. Once inside, she would try and establish if the children were in the house.
Faki and Patrick arrived at Chike’s house as agreed at 6am. They found the gang leader eating a breakfast of boiled sweet potatoes, fried eggs and tea. They declined an offer to partake of the food and accepted a mug of tea each which they drank as they listened to Chike tell them about the night’s events.
Faki approved the gang leader’s plan to send someone to confirm if the children were in the house. A few minutes later a teenager was ushered into the room and introduced as Rebecca. Dressed in faded blue jeans and white t-shirt with her hair in cornrows, she looked younger than 16.
The group left the house after breakfast and walked to the building. Chike was accompanied by his two lieutenants. The group walked to a shop opposite the apartment building whose owner gave them access to the back room which had a couple of stools and crates that they used as seats.
The chocolate brown apartment building on an eighth of an acre had six floors with four flats on each floor comprising bedsitters, one and two bedroom units. In the middle was a small courtyard with clothes lines for the ground floor tenants. The other units had tiny balconies at the back accessed through the kitchen, crammed with basins for washing clothes and drums filled with water.
Clothes lines had been strung haphazardly and some even extended beyond the balcony creating an untidy look. Dozens of TV aerials jutted from the roof. Similar buildings surrounded it, some so close together that they blocked out the sunlight, forcing tenants to keep their lights on during the day.
Faki briefed Rebecca about what to do once she knocked on the door of the apartment. He slipped a tiny microphone into her bra, attached to a transmitter about half the size of a cigarette pack which he secured with a bandage wrapped around her waist. He instructed her to wear a jacket over her t-shirt to help conceal the listening device.
A dozen of the gang members had gone ahead and taken vantage positions around the apartment building where they could observe the goings on unseen. The rest of the gang continued with the search within and around the slum.
Rebecca knocked on the door at 7.30am. Faki donned headphones attached to the recorder which he placed on a crate. Patrick stood inside the shop observing Rebecca through the small window covered by wire mesh. She knocked for several minutes before the door opened a crack.
“Unataka nini?” The brusque voice belonged to a man of about 30, with unkempt hair and beard, and bloodshot eyes. Looking through his binoculars, Patrick could see that he wore a white vest but the lower part of his body was obscured by the door.
“Naomba kazi ya kufua nguo kama ukonayo. Naweza kuosha nyumba pia na viombo,” Rebecca replied.
“Sina kazi.” The man started to shut the door.
Rebecca pushed her hands against it, stopping him. “Tafadhali nipe kazi. Ni pesa kidogo tu. Mama alipoteza kibarua na ndugu yangu amegonjeka. Natafuta centi ya hospitali. Saidia mimi tafadhali,” she pleaded, on the verge of tears.
Before he could respond, a voice yelled from inside the room. “Nini inaendelea huko inje?”
“Ni msichana kutoka kijiji, anatafuta kibarua,” his companion shouted back.
“Mwambie hatuna kazi. Ebu funga huo mlango!” Sudden commotion inside the room followed the shouted command. “Wewe rudi hapa! Unaenda wapi?” A child’s wail rent the air.
The man at the door turned to see what had caused the ruckus. The door opened wide hitting the wall beside it and allowed Rebecca to get a clear view of the room for the first time. A toddler ran towards the door but hadn’t taken more than a few steps before another man snatched him up, turned swiftly and plonked him down on the floor next to another toddler who sat watching the television.
“Kaa chini ama nikuchape,” he ordered in a stern voice. That set off the second toddler who started bawling. The man at the door slammed the door shut and slid the bolt home.
As she walked away Rebecca could clearly hear the two children crying as the men argued. She walked down the stairs, out of the gate and into the shop across the road where the rest waited. “You heard everything?”
Faki nodded. “Could you see the children clearly?”
“The man closed the door really quickly but I recognised the clothes.” She picked up the photograph on the table where the group sat surrounding the recorder. “It’s definitely them. The boy was wearing black shorts and a red Mickey Mouse t-shirt. There was another kid on the floor in front of the TV.” A ripple of excitement ran through the room at her words.
“What now?” Chike asked.
“We need a plan to storm the flat. Can you get the cleaner who tipped you off? She may know what the flat looks like inside and how big it is,” said Faki.
“How about we just ask the caretaker?” countered Chike.
“You know him?” Chike didn’t reply. He flicked his fingers and one of his lieutenants left the room. A short stout man of about 40 years was led into the room five minutes later looking fearful.
“His name is Suda,” Chike’s lieutenant said, pushing the man further into the room.
“Do you know me?” Chike asked. Suda nodded. “These men are my friends. They need information about 2B.”
“What kind…of information?” Suda stuttered.
“Relax, we won’t hurt you,” Faki assured him. “How big is it?”
“Who lives there?”
“Two men, I don’t know their names. I haven’t seen them since they moved in.”
“When was that?”
“Wednesday last week. Boss gave them the key when they paid rent and they moved in on Tuesday night. I saw them briefly the following morning when I gave them garbage bags for the month.”
“Are there children in there?” Suda shook his head. “Can you describe for us what the house looks like inside?”
“I haven’t been inside.”
“I mean where the kitchen, bedrooms are and so on,” Faki clarified.
Patrick asked the shopkeeper for a pencil and notepaper and gave them to the caretaker who drew a rough sketch of the layout of the apartment. After a few more general questions about the other tenants, Faki excused Suda who was escorted outside. He sat on a stone outside the room, watched carefully by Chike’s men in the event that he would be needed again.
“What do you think?” Faki asked Patrick. The other man scrutinised the rough drawing for a few minutes before responding.
“We need a decoy to get them to open the door. Trying to get in by force is too risky. They may kill the kids before we get inside. Plus we don’t know what they’re armed with. Better to disable one. Gives us a better chance with the other,” Patrick said.
“Electricity engineer or water meter reader?” asked Faki.
“In this neighbourhood, faulty water meter will fly more easily,” replied Patrick. “How soon can you get the uniform?”
“I have both in the boot of the car.”
“Stupid question.” Patrick grinned. “What about hardware?”
“Are you packing?”
“Good. Let’s get the building cleared.”
“I need to consult my employer before we go in,” Patrick told him.
“How long do you need?”
“I don’t want to do it on an open channel.” He pointed at the radio clipped to his belt. “Phone is risky. Office and home lines are tapped.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I’ll have to get him down here. Keep the status quo while I send a message.” Patrick left the backroom, walked to the sidewalk and unclipped his radio. “Sierra to Tango, come in.”
“Go ahead Sierra,” Tony’s deep baritone came over the line, slightly distorted by static.
“Package has been located. Need further instructions. Come to ground zero. Avoid big brother. Over.”
“Need a map. Over.”
“Sending Aunt Mary. She’s having her hair done. Over.”
“Sierra out.” Patrick clipped the radio back to his belt and watched a barter trade vendor slowly pass on the other side of the road heavily laden with the goods of his trade – plastic plates, basins, water cans, jugs and laundry baskets.
“Mali kwa mali,” the trader cried out as he walked, hoping to attract tenants in the neighbourhood to exchange old newspapers, clothes, shoes and books that they no longer used for the items he carried.
Patrick gave a hand signal and waited. One of the hotel security guards slipped out of a butchery across the road a minute later and walked to where his boss stood. “Tony is coming. Meet him at the place we agreed and bring him here. Don’t use his car or mine. Take a taxi. The older the better. We don’t want to attract attention.” The other man nodded. “Make sure you’re not followed.”
The other man walked leisurely to the street corner and once out of sight of the apartment block where the kidnappers were holed up, set off at a run.
“Mali kwa mali.” Patrick turned and watched the hawker as he paused briefly at a gate, shouted out his signal cry then continued walking when nobody came out.
He was around 30 years old, hair cropped close to his head and dressed in khaki trousers, faded black Bob Marley t-shirt and threadbare sneakers. Just a typical hawker in Eastlands. And yet something about him niggled Patrick, who continued to watch his slow progress down the street.
Then he shook his head and smiled sheepishly. “Must be getting paranoid,” he muttered under his breath. He walked back to the shop.
“Is he coming?” asked Faki.
“Yes. Start clearing the block.”
Faki turned to Chike. “Send two of your boys to get the neighbours out of their houses and take them to another block where your people can watch them to make sure they don’t interfere with our operation. Tell them to do it quietly, one house at a time so the kidnappers don’t get suspicious.”
Cheki nodded and left the backroom of the shop with his lieutenants. “Monitor things here. I’ll go to the car and get what we need.” Faki left the backroom.
Patrick went to the shop and waited. After a short time, two gang members entered the gate of the apartment building across the road. One knocked on the farthest house on the ground floor. The other climbed the stairs to the top floor. A few minutes later the gang member downstairs led a young woman still in her nightgown, clutching a baby to her chest out of the gate.
A man dressed in a suit emerged from the top floor flat. He hurried down the stairs where another gang member met him outside the gate and led him to an apartment block 500 metres down the road. They trickled out alone or in twos with short intervals between each evacuation.
After the incident with Rebecca, the kidnappers had drawn heavy curtains across their windows to prevent anyone peeping in. But it also prevented them from seeing the activity in the compound.
“Mali kwa mali.” The hawker had gone until the end of the road and now slowly retraced his steps. Patrick trained his binoculars on him for a few minutes then turned his attention back to the apartment block. Clearly, no one wanted to do business this early in the morning.
The gang members were evacuating the second floor where the kidnappers had barricaded themselves. He was pleased to note that the neighbours tiptoed down the corridor as if afraid the slightest sound would bring the heavens down on them. Kosovo Boys were doing a great job. So far so good.
Sophie watched Tony clip the radio back on his belt. He dashed upstairs without a word leaving her and Luke staring at each other in bewilderment at the strange conversation they’d overheard.
She got up from the sofa and began to pace. When Tony had bought this house, he must have disposed of all his old furniture and embraced colour in the process. She didn’t recognise anything. The beige leather sofa set with rosewood armrests and back complemented the S-shaped glass toped coffee table with rosewood base.
The walls were a rich warm beige and set off the orange linen drapes beautifully. A natural fibre rug covered the parquet floor of the living room. The rattan dining table had a glass top and matching chairs with animal print cushions which matched the throw cushions on the sofa.
Tony came down the staircase with its ornately carved wooden banister, shrugging on an olive green corduroy sports jacket over a black V-neck tee shirt which he had paired with khaki pants and brown boots. He walked to the brown wooden hall console table with an antique distressed gold mirror above it and retrieved his car keys from the middle drawer.
“Where are you going?” asked Sophie.
“To meet Patrick.”
“I know that. But where are you going?”
“He found the kids. I don’t know the exact location. He didn’t want to say in case someone was listening in,” Tony replied.
“That’s the other thing. Would you please explain that conversation because I didn’t understand a word?”
Tony grinned. “Sorry, we were talking in code. I keep forgetting you’re not used to it.” He shrugged. “Package means he found the kids. Ground zero is where they’re at. I asked for a map meaning, directions to the place. He said he’s sending one of his security guys to meet me and take me there. That’s it.”
“What about Aunt Mary and her hair?” Sophie probed further.
Tony laughed. “There’s no Aunt Mary. That’s code for the security guy. We’re meeting at a petrol station down the road from Bella’s salon.”
“And why do you have to avoid James?”
“He didn’t say that.” Tony looked puzzled.
“Big brother?” Sophie clarified.
“Oh that. It’s code for Special Branch. He was telling me to make sure I’m not followed by intelligence officers. Satisfied?”
“Sophie, I really have to go.” Tony waved his hands impatiently.
“Not without me you’re not.”
“I don’t know what I’m walking into here. I can’t take the risk of exposing you to any danger. You know the people we’re dealing with.”
“Yeah. And they have my children. I’m coming. Deal with it.” Sophie set her mouth firmly. Tony turned to Luke in silent appeal. Her brother shrugged.
“Sophie be reasonable. If the shit hits the fan out there, I may not be in a position to protect you.”
“I’ve been in tough spots before. I can take care of myself,” she insisted. Tony sighed. “The more time we waste here arguing, the more danger we put my children in. Come on let’s go.” She marched to the living room door, opened it and stepped out.
“I’d better come too. In case you need help with her,” Luke said.
“Thanks.” Tony waved his hand and Luke preceded him out of the room.
Ivan Bisho waited until he turned the corner out of sight of anyone in the shop before he put down his wares and stretched, rubbing his shoulder to relieve the ache. How did mali kwa mali guys walk so many kilometres carrying this stuff around all day?
He looked around him then satisfied that no one was watching, unclipped the radio from his belt and spoke softly into it. The conversation lasted less than a minute. Across town, his boss signed off, then rushed out of his office.
“It’s going down. If we want to intervene, we have to do it now.”
Oliver Zimeli turned away from the window where he had been staring at the cars in the parking lot, brooding. “You’ve confirmed the children are being held there?”
“Bisho recognised Patrick Lusebo, Bola’s head of security. He seems to be directing operations together with Faki, an undercover CID officer. The Kosovo Boys are getting people out of the building. Faki must be doing it under the radar because no official report of an operation has been filed. I just got off the phone with our mole there,” Azizi told his boss.
Zimeli crossed the room and resumed his seat behind the desk. “I’ll call in reinforcements. Go to the scene now. You’ll be my eyes and ears on the ground.”
“Yes sir.” Azizi left the room.
Zimeli picked up the phone and dialled the direct line of Musa Ramo, commander of the Flying Squad, a unit of the CID that dealt with armed robberies, carjackings, kidnappings and gang related crime. The elite unit had 60 officers in the Lavangwa headquarters and was supported by field officers in 10 outposts across the country.
Unlike the regular police force, its officers travelled in unmarked cars and frequently changed their car registration number plates to stay ahead of criminals. The unit had a network of informers who supplied tips on crimes that had been committed. NIS and undercover CID detectives like Faki also fed them information.
In this case however, Faki seemed to have neglected to alert his superiors or the squad after confirming the location of the kidnappers. Zimeli could understand his reasons for secrecy. According to the transcript, the kidnappers would kill the children the moment the police were involved.
Calling the Flying Squad was a calculated risk. That place had more leaks than a sieve. He was sure that within twenty minutes after his call, the media would know about the kidnapping. But he had no choice. Those children needed to be rescued unharmed and he didn’t like the odds of just two men doing the job aided by untrained slum thugs. The Flying Squad was the best equipped to deal with this situation.
Faki changed into the uniform of a Lavangwa city council meter reader – black trousers, light blue shirt and navy cap, both bearing the city logo. He pinned a laminated staff badge to his shirt, complete with a photograph. “Ready?” Patrick asked.
“Ready,” replied Faki. “Let’s go over the plan one more time.”
Patrick’s radio crackled. “Base to chameleon. This is a code black.” Faki froze and stared at his friend. “Base to chameleon. Code black. Do you copy?”
“Dammit,” Faki cursed.
Patrick looked at him curiously. “Is that meant for you?” Faki nodded. Patrick raised an eyebrow in silent query.
“The news has leaked out. They know what we’re doing.”
“Who? Your superiors?”
Faki nodded. “Flying Squad is on the way. They want us to stand down.”
“They’re taking over?” Faki nodded.
“Base to chameleon. This is a code black. Acknowledge,” the insistent voice on the radio pierced the sudden silence in the room. Chike had gone tense at the mention of the dreaded police unit.
“I thought we agreed no karao? And now you’re bringing the terminators?” His voice was a whiplash of fury.
“Just relax, take it easy man,” Faki tried to bring down the boiling temperatures in the room. When Chike got mad, people died. The situation had escalated from dicey to treacherous in less than a minute.
“Don’t tell me to calm down. Those guys shoot first and ask questions later. We’re out of here.” He moved to the door, closely followed by his lieutenant who looked jumpy, on high alert, hard corded muscles ready to spring to the defence of his boss.
Chike burst out of the backroom into the bright sunlight outside, his face so grim that the second lieutenant who had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, stepped back in alarm.
“Kimeumana,” his colleague answered before Chike could respond. “Terminators wako area. Sisi tunaishia.”
“Chike wait.” Faki rushed out after the gang leader. “We need your help.” Behind him, Patrick’s radio crackled once more.
“Base to chameleon. This is a code black. I repeat. Code black. Do you copy?”
“Zima hio mkebe,” Chike snapped. Faki stretched out his hand. Patrick unclipped the radio and handed it to him.
“Chameleon to base. Wilco,” Faki spoke into the device.
“ETA five minutes. Base out.”
Faki turned back to the gang leader. “Chike, listen to me please.”
“Make it quick.” Chike thrust his hands into the pockets of his pricey black jeans which he’d paired with a matching jacket over a white t-shirt and the same cap and sneakers he’d worn the day before.
“Can we go inside?” Chike stared at him stonily for a long moment then walked back into the backroom.
“You don’t have to stay here. Just be nearby, perhaps in the apartment block where your guys are watching the people we evacuated. Tell your people to maintain their positions on the perimeter in case the kidnappers try to run. They should stay hidden and not do anything. Just tell us the direction they went in case they take off. Can you do that?” asked Faki.
“I would prefer if he was closer. Can you get into one of the first or second floor flats in the block behind us?” Patrick asked.
“You can use my house. It’s on the second floor, number 14,” the elderly shopkeeper called out from the front.
“Great. One of my security guards – the one who went to get my employer will wait with you. That way you’ll have a good view of the operation and we can communicate by radio if we need to change the plan quickly and you can tell your boys what to do.”
“I’ll do it as long as you don’t tell the terminators where we are,” replied Chike.
“Understood,” said Faki with relief. “Better move. We have less than a minute before they get here.”
The shopkeeper handed over the key to his flat and Chike hustled out of the backroom followed by his lieutenants. They walked the short distance to the gate of the block which housed the shop and rapped on the gate. It opened and they disappeared inside.
“Monitor the flat. I’m going to the corner to meet the squad and bring them back here.” Patrick nodded and went into the shop.
“Anything?” he asked the shopkeeper who had been watching the door of 2B while they talked in the backroom. The man grinned and handed over the binoculars.
“All quiet. Nobody has moved.” He had obviously heard everything they had said but he didn’t seem fazed at the idea of bullets flying. If anything he seemed to be thriving on the excitement of the morning’s events.
The men entered the backroom so quietly that Patrick didn’t hear them until he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see Faki gesturing him to leave his post and go into the backroom where he stood with two plainclothes police officers.
He relinquished the binoculars to the third policeman and joined the group. The shopkeeper pointed out the flat to the newcomer who lifted the field glasses to his eyes and took over surveillance.
“This is Inspector Tambo and Sergeant Ramla,” Faki introduced the two men. “Patrick Lusebo.” They shook hands.
Both men were of average build and height and could easily disappear into a crowd unnoticed. They wore dark pants, t-shirts, boots and casual jackets which concealed pistols tucked into their waistbands and holsters on their sides. Most likely they each had another pistol strapped to a leg, concealed underneath their trousers.
“I’ve heard of you. You were deputy commander of the Presidential Escort Unit,” said Inspector Tambo, gripping Patrick’s hand in a firm handshake. Patrick nodded.
The other man stared at him keenly, a glint of respect in his eyes. “I was in the unit too before being seconded to the squad,” he continued. The Flying Squad recruited its officers from the ranks of the GSU and the CID.
“Good to meet you.”
“What’s the situation?” They sat on crates as Faki briefed the two men on what they’d accomplished so far. “So there are two men in the flat?”
“That we know of,” said Patrick who always believed in erring on the side of caution.
“The neighbouring houses have all been evacuated?” asked Tambo.
“Yes,” answered Faki.
“Good. That helps.” The Inspector scratched his chin. “Where are the Kosovo Boys?”
“Close. Watching. But they won’t interfere,” replied Faki.
“What was your plan?”
“Use a decoy. I was going to pose as a water meter reader, get them to open the door and disable whoever was behind it, then get into the house.”
“Hmm, not bad.” Tambo looked at Sergeant Ramla then at Faki and back again. “You’re the same size. Switch clothes,” he ordered. Faki looked surprised but Ramla was already stripping. “It’s a good way in but my man will do it,” he told Faki. “We’ll need access to the houses on either side of 2B. Are the tenants among those who were evacuated?”
“Only 2D. The other was empty. No one answered when the Kosovo Boys knocked,” answered Patrick who had overseen the evacuation.
“We’ll need the key.”
“I’ll ask Chike to get it,” said Patrick. “Anything else you need from us?”
“No. We’ll take over here.” He gave a sharp jerk of his head and Ramla who had finished getting dressed in the city council uniform went into the shop, got the elderly shopkeeper and led him outside, where he was instructed to sit in the yard and wait.
Patrick stood up. “The father of the children is coming.”
“That’s fine as long as he stays out of our way. This area is now for police officers only.” Patrick took the hint and went out.
He walked around to the front of the shop and looked up at the apartment block where flat 2B still had curtains drawn tight across the windows. It was out of his hands now. All he could do was pray that the operation succeeded.
An old beaten up taxi came around the corner as he stood on the sidewalk. It stopped beside him and his assistant got out from the front passenger seat. Tony emerged from the backseat. Patrick’s eyebrows shot up in surprise when Sophie and her brother Luke stepped out after him. He stared at Tony, then at her then back at Tony who shrugged helplessly.
“She insisted on coming.” He looked around. “Where are they?”
Patrick quickly ushered the group along the sidewalk to the black gate leading to the apartments above the shop. His assistant asked the taxi driver to wait then hustled after his boss. Once inside, the group found two Kosovo Boys guarding the gate.
“Chike?” Patrick asked. One of his lieutenants sat on a chair just inside the gate. He waved to his charges, indicating they should let the group go up.
“Second floor. Number 14.” He pointed the way. Patrick didn’t speak until he knocked on the door of the flat and was ushered in by Chike’s second lieutenant.
The flat was simply furnished with a wooden sofa set with print detachable seat covers, plain wooden coffee table and four matching stools. A small table with a 14 inch television on top of it stood at one corner. The plain cement floor was painted red. Chike stood at the window of the living room covered with sheers, staring outside.
“The police need the key for 2D.” He pointed to the block across the road. “Could you ask your boys to get it?” Patrick asked. Chike nodded at his lieutenant who left the room. “This is Chike, commander of the Kosovo Boys,” he introduced the gang leader. “Chike, meet Tony and Sophie, parents of the children and Luke her brother.”
Chike came forward and took Sophie’s hand. “I’m really sorry about what happened.”
“We wouldn’t have found them so quickly if not for Chike and his boys,” said Patrick.
“Thank you so much for all your help,” Sophie told him with a grateful smile which he returned. “Where are they exactly?” she asked, turning to Patrick.
He went to the window and pointed at the brown apartment block across the street. Sophie, Tony and Luke went and stood beside him. Sophie lifted her hand to draw the sheers away from the windows. Patrick clamped a hand on her arm.
“Don’t. We don’t want to alert the kidnappers.” He released her arm. “They are being held on the second floor, the flat right in the middle.”
“Do you have a plan to get them out?” Tony asked.
“There’s a small complication,” Patrick said.
“We were all set to go in. I was just waiting till you got here so that you could give us the green light. Then the Flying Squad came and we were ordered to stand down. They’ve taken over the operation.”
“Meaning?” asked Sophie.
“We can’t interfere. We’re just spectators now.”
“But the kidnappers said not to call the police. What if they kill my kids? Where are the police anyway? What are they waiting for?” Her voice had taken on a shrill note, rising several octaves with each question.
Patrick rebuked Tony with a silent glance then turned his attention back to Sophie. “You have to stay calm. Any hysterics could further endanger your children.” He spoke in the firm tone he usually reserved for unruly hotel guests.
Sophie stiffened and braced her shoulders. “I never get hysterical,” she snapped, lips tightening in annoyance.
“What now?” Tony asked.
“We wait,” replied Patrick. “Better make yourselves comfortable. It may take a while.” The door opened and Chike’s lieutenant entered holding a key. Patrick took it and walked to the door. “Stay here. Don’t leave this apartment until you hear from me.”
Chike nodded subtly from his position at a corner of the room. So did Patrick’s assistant, who walked to the door. A glance passed between the two men, a silent signal passed and received. They both understood that Patrick’s message was directed at the children’s parents, especially Sophie. His job was to make sure she stayed put in the event things got hairy across the street.
The arrival of the motorcycle heralded the start of the rescue operation. The rider dismounted at the corner, out of view of the kidnappers, walked leisurely to the backroom of the shop where his boss waited and handed over the fake City Council ID that Sergeant Ramla would use to pose as a water meter reader.
Inspector Tambo murmured into his radio and his men moved into position. Five members of the elite unit crept up the stairs, AR-15 rifles held at the ready. Two took positions at the bottom of the stairs just below the landing to the second floor. The other three walked stealthily down the corridor. Two took up positions on either side of the flat where the kidnappers were holed up.
The third man, the only one not carrying a rifle, pistols tucked into the waistband at his back and boot, stepped up to the door of 2B and knocked. Two more men crept around to the back of the apartment block and took up sentry positions on the ground floor to cut off the kidnappers’ escape in the event they decided to climb down from the kitchen balcony.
The group watching from the shopkeeper’s apartment on the second floor across the street waited with bated breath as Sergeant Ramla knocked again. Patrick watched the proceedings from a butchery a few feet away from the shop which the Flying Squad had taken over as their base for the operation.
“Open up. I’m from the City Council. I’m here to read your water meter,” Sergeant Ramla shouted, banging on the door after knocking for several minutes with no response. Heavy footsteps sounded before the door of 2B opened a crack.
Sergeant Ramla held up a sheet of paper. “You haven’t paid water for two months. I’m here to cut the meter.”
“Ati nini?” The brusque voice sharpened as an angry frown knitted the man’s features. “Sisi tulihamia huku juzi.”
“Isn’t this your account?” Sergeant Ramla waved the fake water bill in the man’s face.
“Mimi sijui mambo ya bill,” the kidnapper continued to protest. “Uliza tajiri.”
“That’s not my job. Nimetumwa kukata maji,” Sergeant Ramla took a step back and half turned as if to walk away. “If you dispute the bill, talk to my superiors.”
“Ngoja kidogo boss. Haraka ni ya nini? Watu huongea na kuskizana. Nipatie dakika moja please,” he pleaded then shut the door hurriedly.
A whispered conversation ensued then a minute later the door opened again, a little wider this time. The kidnapper poked his head out and looked on both sides of the corridor suspiciously. The two officers standing there had ducked into flat 2D and now stood just inside the doorway, waiting for a signal from their colleague who leaned nonchalantly against the balcony facing the door of the apartment, lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
After another suspicious glance on either side of the door to ensure that no one could observe him, the kidnapper reached into the pocket of his trousers and removed a Sh200 note which he held out to the ‘City Council worker’.
Sergeant Ramla looked at the note with disdain. “Bwana wacha mchezo. Ebu angalia hii bill. Ni pesa ngapi?” He waved the fake water bill in his hand for emphasis, then took another puff of his cigarette.
The kidnapper looked around nervously to see whether any of his neighbours had heard the shouted retort. “Tulia boss tafadhali,” he whispered furtively then reached into his pocket again and this time withdrew a Sh500 note.
A wide smile spread across Sergeant Ramla’s face. He flicked ash off the cigarette butt and stretched out his hand to take the note but didn’t quite reach the other man’s fingers, forcing the kidnapper to take a step towards him. As Sergeant Ramla’s left hand closed over the note, he whipped out his pistol with his right hand and in seconds pinned the kidnapper’s hand behind his back and jammed the cold steel muzzle into his neck.
“Don’t move.” The kidnapper froze. Before he could react, he was shoved against the wall. The open door beside him crashed against the wall with a bang as the two Flying Squad officers who had been hiding in 2D entered the apartment. Gunshots rent the air seconds later.
The two officers at the bottom of the stairs rushed down the corridor as Sergeant Ramla slipped steel handcuffs around his prisoner’s wrists. He pointed into the room beside him and the two policemen rushed in after their colleagues who were exchanging fire with the second kidnapper.
The policeman who entered the house first managed to reach the bedroom where the children were being held. His colleague tried to follow him into the room before the sound of a bullet whistling past his head forced him back into the living room.
A rapid burst of fire from the second bedroom forced the first officer to quickly withdraw his head from the doorway, where he had been trying to catch a glimpse of the gangster firing from the kitchen. Shit. There was a third man in the apartment. From the sound, it seemed they were both armed with AK-47 rifles.
One of the policemen in the living room fired a burst into the open kitchen doorway. He was rewarded seconds later by a burst of return fire that splintered the wooden door leading into the bedroom where the children slept.
The first officer stashed them in the closet out of harm’s way of the flying bullets. Then he lay flat on the ground, behind a table he’d thrown onto its side, peering cautiously from around the sides at the door, ready to fire should any of the kidnappers attempt to get into the room. A few minutes later, the apartment went deathly quiet.
Sergeant Ramla conferred with his two colleagues in whispered tones as the fourth man in the living room kept watch on the corridor from behind the sofa, ready to fire at anything that moved from the direction of the kitchen. They were at an impasse.
Directly across the open entrance into the living room were two doors leading to the bathroom and toilet. On the left, hidden from view was the door into the kitchen. On the right, were two doors leading to the bedrooms. Their man in the first bedroom couldn’t exit without attracting gunfire from the two kidnappers holed up in the second bedroom and the kitchen.
The kidnappers couldn’t move either without exposing themselves to gunfire from the policemen in the living room and the first bedroom. They could try to access the second bedroom from the corridor but the spaces between the window grills were so small that even a small child couldn’t get through them.
“What about teargas?” suggested Sergeant Ramla. “Climb to the kitchen balcony and toss it in and another canister into the bedroom at the same time, then overpower them while they’re disoriented.” His colleagues nodded.
“That could work,” one of them replied.
“First find out what state the children are in. It may take more than a few minutes to get to them,” the other man advised. Sergeant Ramla reached for his radio.
The sound of gunfire sent Sophie into a panic. She rushed to the door of the apartment, which Patrick’s assistant security guard quickly blocked when he saw her coming.
She beat at his chest in rage, overriding fear driving her actions, only one thought in her head – she had to get to her children. Luke rushed to his sister and tried to peel her away from the security guard who was trying to contain her without injuring her in the process. But it seemed fear had given Sophie superhuman strength. She easily deflected Luke’s hands and clawed at the face of the security guard.
“Let me go. They’re killing my kids! Let me out!”
Her screams galvanised Tony, who until then had been watching the trio struggle, feet rooted to the spot, unsure what to do. He added his efforts to Luke’s and they at last managed to get her away from the door into the middle of the living room. Luke took his sister into his arms, intending to offer comfort but she broke out of his hold and ran towards the door again.
Tony grabbed her before she could reach it and pinned her arms to her sides. “Stop it Sophie. This isn’t helping. You have to calm down.” His words fell on deaf ears. She struggled to break out of his hold, tears of anger and helplessness running down her cheeks.
Tony pulled her to him and held her tight, using all his strength to hold her as she continued to struggle. It took several minutes as he crooned gently into her ear before her struggles ceased and she slumped against him. Sophie wept brokenly as Tony held her close, whispering endearments and reassurances in her ears. “Shh, everything’s going to be okay.”
Sophie felt terror squeeze her chest like a steel band. She struggled to breathe through the pain and wept for her children. This was a bad dream. It had to be. Her children were not out there in the middle of a shootout between the police and gangsters. In the past week she’d felt like she was in a trance.
First, the phone call telling her that Kevin and Sean were missing. Then another call three days later informing her that Tony had taken them. Then the confrontation with him, only to realise they had been kidnapped. Each day had brought worse news than the day before. And now she felt like she had landed in the middle of one of those movies she loved so much. Action movies with bullets flying around where the good guys always managed to win.
Sophie knew she would never watch another of those movies without flinching. Without remembering this day. If her children lived through it. She had worked so hard to hide her children from Tony, hiding from her worst fear – that he would find out about them and take them away from her.
Nothing could have prepared her for this nightmare, where she could only watch, powerless, unable to do anything but scream as her children got caught in the middle of a war that she neither understood nor saw coming. She flinched at the sound of more gunfire and began to pray.
She offered up her soul in exchange for the lives of Kevin and Sean. She would do anything, give anything if only they survived this. “Make it stop,” she sobbed into Tony’s chest. He held her tighter and murmured something she couldn’t make out. “Please make it stop.”
Tony had never felt so helpless in his life. He held Sophie tight and wished he could do more than just stand here, unable to stop the trembling that gripped her body as she clutched at him, terrified her children would die.
Once more, he found himself wishing that she was in his arms under different circumstances. She hurt because of him and his family. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it just yet. Her whispered plea flayed his soul. He would give anything to grant it. Every last penny he owned.
But even then, it might not be enough to save their children. Twins he had never even seen. He waited for the familiar anger to fill him at the thought of the gigantic secret she had kept from him. But in this moment, all he could feel was compassion for the woman in his arms and a terrible sense of helplessness.
If those children died, he would lose Sophie forever. He knew that as sure as night follows day, Sophie would never speak to him again if they lost Kevin and Sean. The sound of the door opening intruded into his thoughts. He looked up to see Patrick enter the room. Sophie didn’t seem to have heard him enter. She continued to burrow her face in his chest, tremors running through her every few seconds.
Patrick stared in sympathy at the woman in his arms for a long moment before he spoke. “They’re alive.”
Sophie’s head jerked up at the sound of his voice. “What?” she asked, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“They’re safe for now,” Patrick answered in a soft voice, unlike the tone he had used with her earlier. “They’re in one of the bedrooms, in a closet. There’s a policeman with them standing guard to make sure no one gets into the room.”
“They haven’t been shot?” The question was a tremulous whisper, thick with tears.
“No. They haven’t been shot,” Patrick reassured her. Sophie’s shoulders sagged with relief and she buried her face once more against Tony’s chest. “I have to get back. I’ll keep you posted.” He moved towards the door.
Tony gently pried her away from him and nodded to Luke who led his sister to the sofa, sat her down and put his arms around her, as Tony followed Patrick outside.
“What aren’t you telling us?” His question stopped his head of security’s descent down the stairs. Patrick came back and stood close to his boss. He glanced quickly at the closed door of the apartment behind them before he spoke.
“Getting to the kids will be a little tricky,” he began in a low voice which didn’t carry any further than the two of them. He explained the layout of the apartment and the Flying Squad’s plan to use teargas to disable the kidnappers.
“There’s something else you’re not telling me,” Tony insisted after he finished speaking.
“The kidnappers drugged the kids,” Patrick whispered after another furtive glance at the closed door where Sophie waited.
Ignoring Tony’s sharp intake of breath, he continued, “We’re not sure what they used. The man they captured isn’t talking. The officer with the children has tried waking them up but they’re really groggy and lethargic. The teargas could make it worse if the police are not able to neutralise the kidnappers in a few minutes. Don’t tell Sophie. Let’s not worry her more than we have to,” Patrick cautioned.
Tony nodded without a word and watched the other man walk down the stairs out of sight.