Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
She was concentrating so hard on her economics assignment that she jumped when the phone rang. She glanced at the clock on the white wall in surprise as she automatically answered. Almost 2am. Probably a guest who had stayed late at the bar and wanted to schedule a morning wake up call.
“Hi Sophie.” The deep baritone sent a tingling sensation down her spine, igniting a wave of heat in her belly. Damn. She was really beginning to hate the effect he had on her.
“Mr Karenga what can I do for you?”
“Please call me Tony.” He had made the request several times since he gave her a lift some days before. She had no intention of humouring him. Thinking of him as her employer was a defence mechanism she was using to avoid the attraction building between them.
“Can I offer you some tea in my office?”
“I can’t leave the switchboard unattended.”
“It will only be for a few minutes. No one will call at this time of night.”
A warm chuckle came down the wire causing her to smile. She really liked his laugh. It lit up his eyes which crinkled at the corners and curved those sensuous lips which made her want to kiss them all the more…What the hell!
Sophie shook her head to dispel her thoughts. Oh dear, she really was in trouble if his laugh was enough to get her fantasising about him.
“True. But I had a very specific reason. I have business with the switchboard operator tonight, unlike the hotel guests who are all sound asleep.”
“I wish I could, but I have an assignment that I need to finish.”
“I won’t keep you long, promise.”
“I really shouldn’t.”
“It’s only a few minutes Sophie. I have banana cake to go with the tea. Better hurry before it gets cold.”
Sophie felt her resolve weakening. Banana cake was her favourite. She had become hooked ever since she ate her first slice, smuggled to the switchboard courtesy of Martin. And this late in the night, no one was likely to call. She would just nip to his office for ten minutes tops. She got up and went to the door.
The administrative offices at Woodville were on two floors in the East Wing. Sophie walked downstairs, crossed the lobby and walked down a long corridor. She took the stairs two at a time to Tony’s office on the first floor, which also housed the executive boardroom and the chairman’s office.
She was just entering his office when a voice filled with urgency came over the radio at the switchboard.
“Delta to control, come in.”
“Control this is Delta, over.”
Tony rose from his position behind the large, gleaming mahogany desk as she entered and met her halfway across the room. He extended his hand. A frisson of electricity ran through her when his large hand enveloped her much smaller one with a firm, warm handshake.
She snatched her hand out of his grip. His lips quirked in amusement as he leisurely surveyed her from head to toe.
She pulled her cream jacket tighter around her and wished she had taken time to comb her hair. She ran her hands through it often when she struggled with a difficult assignment like the one she had been doing when he called.
Normally it didn’t matter since no one ever came to the cubicle during the late night hours. But she could only imagine how it must look to him. She was wearing a red camisole under the jacket, which she had paired with black trousers and silver studded black ballet flats.
He took her elbow and guided her across the wall-to-wall maroon carpet flecked with black stars to match the black satin curtains in the small alcove next to the window which served as a lounge. A brown leather sofa and two matching wing chairs with a glass-topped mahogany coffee table made for a cosy arrangement.
Two lamps placed on side tables on either side of the sofa provided soft light. A tray with two cups, two teapots and a plate of cake slices sat on the coffee table. She sat on the sofa. He took the armchair next to her.
“Coffee or tea?”
“Milk? Sugar?” She nodded, trying and failing as usual to relax in his presence. Nothing new there. Her hand shook slightly as she took the proffered cup. She glanced at his face but he didn’t react. Maybe he hadn’t noticed.
He offered her the plate of cake and she murmured her thanks as she took a slice. He poured coffee into his cup, added milk and sugar and sipped, ignoring the cake. His steady penetrating gaze made her shift uneasily in her seat.
“You make me nervous.”
She shrank back mortified about blurting her thoughts out loud. “I find you really intimidating.”
“I’m just like anybody else.” He shrugged carelessly waving a hand in the air.
“Yeah right,” she mumbled under her breath.
He stared at her for long moments. She refused to meet his gaze and focussed all her attention on the tea in her cup. “Ask me anything you like.”
She risked a quick glance at his face but couldn’t tell if he was toying with her or not. “Really? Anything?” She gave him a wary look.
He put down his cup, sat back in the chair, crossed one ankle over the opposite knee and opened his arms wide. “Anything.”
The position displayed his outfit to best advantage. Perfectly creased, obviously pricey black jeans and a white long-sleeved cotton shirt tucked snugly into the band showed off his broad shoulders and flat stomach. A black belt cinched his waist and black suede loafers covered his feet. Sophie’s mind whirled with a million questions.
She took a sip and debated which one to start with.
Meanwhile the increasingly frantic voice at the dam continued its quest to raise the switchboard operator.
“Delta to Control come in.”
“Delta to Control do you read?”
“Control come in. Come in Control.”
“Did you always intend to join the family business?”
Tony threw back his head and laughed. “You couldn’t start with something simple?” Sophie raised an eyebrow, her curiosity aroused. “It’s complicated.”
He brushed his hands through his hair several times then leaned forward, elbows on his knees and laced his fingers together. “I thought I’d be an architect. From the time I was in high school, I dreamt of building houses.”
“Dad thought a business degree would be more useful and steered me in that direction.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair again, something Sophie realised he did when agitated or thoughtful. “Well…when my father speaks about what he has built and how it would be meaningless without someone to pass it to, it’s easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm. You feel like you’re part of something big.”
“There is no but,” Tony laughed.
“Let’s just say, although I know that what I am doing now is really important for my family, dreams die hard. Architecture was a big driving force in my life for a lot of years.”
“There’s still time to follow your dream if that’s what you really want.”
He shrugged. “I can’t imagine going back to school, which is what I’d have to do.”
“Where did you study?”
“High school at St Mathew’s, then I went to Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania.”
“Wow, you studied at Wharton? I’m impressed. That’s like the best business school.”
“Yeah it was pretty awesome,” he admitted with a smile.
“I can’t believe I’ve finally met someone who went to Wharton. What was it like?”
“What do you want to know?”
She threw up her hands and rolled her eyes. “Duh. Everything.” She listened with rapt attention as he regaled her with stories about his stay in the US and his escapades with Isaiah and Freddo.
Sophie soon felt at ease. She poured another cup of tea, helped herself to a second slice of banana cake, kicked off her shoes and sat with one leg tucked beneath her and the other stretched out, wriggling her toes in the thick soft carpet.
“Wow, you guys had a lot of fun.” Her voice had gentled and the faraway, wistful look in her almond shaped eyes softened her features, giving her a surreal glow in the soft light cast by the lamps. Tony’s sharp intake of breath brought her back to the present.
“Where did you go just now?”
“What were you thinking? You seemed really far away.”
“Nothing.” A sharp edge crept into her voice. She sat up abruptly and looked at her watch. “Gosh, it’s really gotten late. I have to get back to the switchboard.”
“Why do you do that?”
“Hide. Whenever I ask a personal question you run.”
“No I don’t.” Her actions belied her words. She was already on her feet. “Thank you so much for the tea. I’d stay, but duty calls and I do have an assignment to finish.”
“Sophie?” His voice halted her headlong rush to the door. “Can I see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, we’ll have to see.”
“What about…?” He was talking to thin air. The door shut behind her with a click.
A few hours later when her shift ended, Sophie stared in surprise as Daniel walked through the door instead of Martin. “Hi.” She pasted a big smile on her face, determined to be civil.
“Where were you last night?”
She frowned. “Here. Why?”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
“Oh yeah.” He shrugged off his heavy coat and took the chair next to hers.
Daniel was a big man. At least 5’10 and heavyset. He didn’t so much walk as plod and breathed heavily even while seated, like a man who had just finished a marathon. He always arrived at the switchboard winded from the effort of climbing just one flight of stairs. His face had a permanent shine with thickset brows set in a large forehead. His small beady eyes were permanently red as a result of heavy drinking, chain smoking and inadequate sleep.
He sat down and the buttons of his ill-fitting blue and white striped shirt gaped open over his bulging midriff. Sophie hurriedly stood up to avoid close proximity to his stale alcohol breath. “What happened?”
“I never thought I’d see the day. The perfect employee has finally messed up. When you screw up you do it big time sweetie. Just like me.” His spiteful glee startled her.
“Dammit Daniel what are you talking about?” Sophie slammed her palm on the desk impatiently as an alarm went off in her brain.
He continued staring at her with an evil grin. “I’ll let your godfather tell you. Isn’t he the one always protecting you?”
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “But I highly doubt if he can pull you out of the fire sweetie. You’re in pretty deep.”
“Stop calling me that! I’m your colleague not your girlfriend.” His thick lips curved into a smug smile and the malicious gleam in his eyes deepened, infuriating her.
“Not for long.” His bellow of laughter rang in her ears as she stormed out, slammed the door and bolted down the stairs. She halted abruptly at the sound of her name halfway across the lobby. She turned and spotted Pam, the receptionist on duty frantically waving her over. A bad feeling coursed through her veins as she changed direction and walked towards her.
“Ayize wants to see you in his office now.” Sophie nodded. She wanted to ask Pam if she knew what the deputy General Manager wanted but Pam had already turned her attention to a big party of tourists that had just entered the lobby, the dusty state of their gear and clothing indicating they had come from safari.
She waved her thanks to Pam who nodded distractedly. Sophie resumed her walk across the lobby this time to the administrative offices on the ground floor of the East Wing.
She paused for a moment in dread. She had spent more than an hour with Tony in his first floor office in the same wing last night. Had something happened in the interim? She racked her brain in worry. The switchboard was quiet when she returned and had remained so the rest of the night. Had she missed an important call?
There was only one way to find out. She took a moment to steel herself and steady her breathing before knocking on the door of the deputy GM’s office. Robert Ayize reported directly to Tony or James who alternated every two years as general manager of the hotel, with their father Bola Karenga as the chairman. Currently, Tony was serving as GM while James ran Liberty Insurance, another family business based in Lavangwa.
“Come in.” She swung the door open, not in the least surprised to see Martin who shot her a sympathetic glance before turning his attention back to the papers in his hands. “Please sit down.” The deputy GM waved her to the second chair facing his desk.
He was 35 years old but his short stature, baby face with its round cheeks and big eyes framed by retro horn rimmed glasses made him appear younger. She could easily visualise him as a geek tinkering with test tubes in a lab. Many people were surprised on first meeting him to realise that he ran the hotel. Perhaps to make up for it, he was forthright and impatient, not tolerating incompetence in any form.
“Five canoes were stolen from the boathouse last night.” Sophie stiffened in dismay and clutched her hands in her lap. “The thieves smashed the padlock to gain access. As they rowed the boats down the river, the security guys saw their torches and tried to raise the alarm to get help to intercept them downstream.”
His intent probing gaze, colder than the current July weather pierced the delicate armour she’d donned before walking into the room. She withered under his scrutiny and stared at the floor. “They called the switchboard for almost one hour. Where were you?” His voice throbbed with anger.
Sophie stayed outwardly calm but her mind was working furiously as she tried to formulate a convincing explanation. She cast a helpless glance at Martin but other than a faint shake of his head he didn’t speak. She was on her own. “I’m really sorry, I don’t know what to say.” Remarkably her voice was steady even though she shook on the inside.
“Where were you?” His voice cut through the tension in the room like a laser.
“I fell asleep.”
“What?” They both voiced the question but the emotions behind each was a stark contrast to the other. Martin stared at her in disbelief. The deputy GM in outrage. “You did what?” the latter repeated.
“I guess I was tired from doing the economics assignment,” her voice faltered then strengthened as she steeled herself in the face of his wrath. “I went to watch TV in the adjoining room. I usually do that when calls stop coming in but I leave the door open so I can hear the phone. I must have dozed off when Delta radioed in.”
“He says he called repeatedly for more than 45 minutes.”
“I didn’t hear him. I must have put the volume too loud…I’m really sorry.”
Martin was still staring at her in disbelief and she knew why. She was a night owl and thrived on the night shift. The idea that she couldn’t hear a radio call no matter how loud the TV was ridiculous. She watched the expression on his face change to confusion.
“Is that what really happened?” Ayize seemed to be taking his cue from Martin as he sounded sceptical. Sophie nodded then resumed her scrutiny of the floor. The silence stretched until finally Ayize sighed. “Do you realise how serious this is?” She nodded again.
“We have a sports derby this weekend and have lost half our fleet of canoes. It won’t be possible to replace them in two days. Do you have any idea how much it will cost the hotel to cancel the event? We’ve spent a fortune on advertising that’s likely to go down the drain. That will be a direct hit on the bottom line.” Sophie winced but didn’t speak.
“In all fairness, there’s no way to know if she had responded and alerted management, that the attempt to intercept the thieves would have succeeded,” Martin tried to defend her.
“Perhaps,” conceded the deputy GM, “But her negligence in leaving her post is a serious issue. I might have been able to keep this at a department level, but I have no choice but to report the theft of the canoes to Mr Karenga who will want to know why the derby cannot go ahead. When he asks what we did to prevent the theft, I’ll have to tell him about the radio.”
Sophie sank lower into her chair at the mention of Tony and came close to tears. How had a simple invitation to drink tea turned into such a mess?
“Are you not able to handle this job Sophie? I know you’re juggling work and school. But the switchboard is the hub of this hotel. When people at the dam, the farm and the greens want to communicate something urgent they use the radio. It can never be unattended for longer than a few minutes. What were you thinking?”
Sophie hunched down in misery. Her record had been so good until now. She felt her dream of getting a full time job slipping away. Oh God what have I done?
His next words confirmed her worst fears. “You’re suspended for a week without pay, pending an evaluation from HR about your suitability for employment. Go home. Report back to me after seven days.” He nodded curtly then picked up the phone indicating the meeting was over.
Sophie stood up and walked to the door with Martin close behind. He waited until they descended the stairs leading to the basement before speaking. “What was that?” Martin’s voice was sharp. Sophie shrugged in defeat. “You fell asleep? Why would you feed the deputy GM such garbage?”
She threw up her hands in frustration. “I didn’t know what else to say.” Her eyes swam with tears. “Daniel refused to tell me what had happened. I didn’t have a clue until I walked into that room. I couldn’t think of a better reason for not answering the radio.”
“That jackass!” Martin cursed viciously. “I told him to warn you.”
“Well, you should have sent someone else.” Martin sighed and his shoulders slumped. Sophie was immediately contrite. “Oh no…I didn’t mean to imply…it’s not your fault.”
“Sophie, it’s ok.” He waved away her apology.
She stared unseeing at the wall. “Is there any way to prevent this issue being escalated to the Karengas?” Desperation tinged her voice.
Martin patted her gently on the shoulder. “We lost five boats Sophie. There is no way to cover that up. And certainly not two days before a sports derby.”
“I’m so screwed.”
A long silence ensued as they resumed walking. “Are you going to tell me what really happened last night?”
She took a long time before answering, weighing the options in her head. “I can’t.”
“I just want to help.”
“I know. But telling you will just make things worse. I just…” The reality of her situation finally sunk in and she covered her face in despair. “What am I going to do?”
Martin squeezed her shoulders gently. “Stop panicking. You haven’t been fired, just suspended. It’s going to be fine. Your work has been great so far.” They resumed walking.
“Thanks Martin, I appreciate your support,” she told him when they reached the staff entrance. She looked at her watch. She had missed the staff shuttle. She zipped up her jacket and braced herself for the cold, long walk to the bus stop with only her thoughts for company. Talk about depressing.