The phone rang as soon as I disembarked from the kombi. I cursed playfully under my breath when I noticed who it was from. I already knew what she wanted.
“Tomatoes? In what world do tomatoes and onions cost that much?” I asked curtly
“In the real world. The problem is you men never know the prices of basic things. Things are getting expensive.”
“Don’t use that line on me, please. I know the price of tomatoes and onions too well. Just ask for money for your nails if you need it,” I said, jumping over a puddle of water. I had seen it late. But my quick reflexes saved me. Only the hindmost part of my left boot hit the edge of the puddle, raising little, innocuous spatters.
“Hello, what did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“Ummm…your voice was shaking in the end, Munya.”
“You heard me, though.”
“Oh okay, It’s not for nails, please. It’s for…can you guess?” she said, her voice suddenly low and seductive. Women!
“Spare me, please. I knew you were lying to me,” I replied
“I was not lying…” she said dragging the last word in that disarmingly ingratiating tone of hers.
I sighed in an exaggerated manner for her benefit.
“Okay. I will send you through Ecocash, but don’t blame tomatoes again, please,” I said, knowing full well in two days she would be asking for more.
“Thank you, honey. Thank you, father of my children. Stay away from the fire. The one that—”
I terminated the call before she finished her overly effusive statement. If I let her keep going, I would end up sending more money than I had planned. She was that persuasive, Ngoni, my wife.
I immediately logged onto my Ecocash app and sent her the money. The earlier the better.
I walked past a group of young men lounging at the back of an old lorry and passing each other something that I took to be a mbanje roll, judging from the smoke. They were victims of the scourge of unemployment.
I had my khaki chinos on, together with a black golf shirt, white sneakers, and a nice black beret. I also smelled amazing. Ngoni had bought me some expensive Italian cologne on my birthday.
The shopping centre was where the action was today. It was month end, and the place would be packed to the rafters. It meant a lot of money would exchange hands, and like any other resourceful entrepreneur, I had a nose for such environments. While other people’s entrepreneurial endeavours at the shopping centre involved operating beerhalls, nightclubs, butcheries, braai stands, car washes, parking lots, restaurants, toilet and bathroom facilities, mine took a more innovative form. I took from the rich. I wasn’t a pick pocket, I was into bigger things. I also made it a point not to go for the poor, except on the rare occasions when things were really bad, then I pounced indiscriminately. Even lions ate rodents when zebras, buffalos and wildebeests were in short supply.
I had been dismissed from the Army a few years back. I still maintain I didn’t deserve dismissal. It was my first offence. I mean it was my first time to get caught. At most, I deserved a slap on the wrist. Firstly, my crime was trivial compared to the ones my colleagues and superiors were committing. I merely accepted bribes from some border jumpers. Okay, I solicited bribes. Okay, I demanded bribes and violently extorted the border jumpers, but that’s besides the point. My crime was trivial, and unlike others, mutually beneficial. Secondly, I was working at a border town. How would one expect someone to work at a place where millions of dollars and millions worth of good changed hands, to be clean just like that? I was treated unfairly, but it was what it was, really. I was never one to wallow in despair, anyway. So even though they took my job and source of livelihood, they couldn’t take my highly transferrable skills. I had most of the skills required to survive. I could handle guns, that went without saying. I could outlast most people in hand-to-hand combat, I had a red belt in taekwondo. I was shrewd, too. There was something about working in border towns that sharpened your instincts and mental faculties. Add to the fact that I was just one intimidating fellow to look at: 1.85cm and solidly built with lean muscles and perennially bloodshot eyes, the world was at my mercy.
My attention was snatched by loud shouting as I came to the vicinity of the shopping centre. Throngs had mobbed a beer truck, cheering and singing songs that extolled the enduring and irresistible virtues of their favourite opaque beer. Zimbabweans! Loud music blared from everywhere. The air smelled of braai meat, alcohol, exhaust fumes, nicotine, weed and unrestrained debauchery. Cars of every kind, size and state littered the open space. There were so many of them that some had to park in the football pitch a whole three half a kilometre from the centre. It was like a huge church camp meeting, and in some ways, it was. These people worshipped at the altar of alcohol, meat and women.
An ice cream seller waved at me. I knew him well. We had met a lot of times at the shopping centre before. Great story teller (and yeah, innovative liar) and legendary imbiber of the wise waters. His eyes were heavily lidded. He had definitely slept on the bottle.
“My man, ndiitirewo one. Can you buy me a cold one my throat is parched,” he said in a mildly slurred tone.
“Haa, Gidiza, maOne wena. It’s tough for everyone these days.”
“Haa musadaro mdhara. Imi ndimi mbinga dzacho ka. You are the financially endowed ones.”
“Haa maya Gidiza. Zvakapresser. Ndokuona pakudzoka. I might find something for you on my way back.”
“Haa Iribho, mdhara. Masimbisa. You’re the greatest.” he said, his attention now taken by a customer. I took the opportunity and walked away.
The beerhalls were filled to capacity, and the sweet savour of collective inebriation reached to the skies. You couldn’t find more drunk people per square metre at the Oktoberfest. I decided to start with the aptly named Copa Cabana bar. It had everything — ladies, good music, pool and careless patrons. It was also situated at the most strategic location on the shopping centre: right at the middle point and facing a line of other night clubs, restaurants and pubs. I went straight into the bar acknowledging with a curt nod two huge men who stood on either side of the entrance as I walked through. Bouncers. Really imposing specimens.
The bar was full. I found a spot close to the exit and sat on a squeaky, wooden bench that everyone had somehow decided not to sit on. It looked like it could buckle under my weight anytime. Rich beerhall owners couldn’t afford decent seats? If you saw the man strutting about in his Giorgio Armani suits with his pot belly leading the way, his expensive watch resting lazily on his flabby wrist, and his other hand resting on top of his new Land Cruiser V12 speaking in his suave accent, you would think everything about him mirrored the opulence. Yet he couldn’t even invest in modern equipment for his cash cow — the bar. Something caught my eye in the corner close to the counter. A group of youths were playing draughts and cards, their voices competing with the music for attention. In the other corner were a few gentlemen playing snooker while a tall guy in full formal clothing stood close by holding a sheaf of notes nonchalantly. Betting money? They talked in low, measured tones. Impressionable and less discerning people would think they were intelligence operatives. Zimbabweans had a sickness for attributing intelligence operative status to anyone whose dressing and demeanour they couldn’t account for. These were normal dudes who couldn’t find “spy” in the Merriam Webster dictionary. A few steps from them, two big-hipped ladies, in similar tight, bright-coloured clothes swayed and gyrated vivaciously to the rhythm of some Congolese rhumba tune — Papa Wemba or Awilo Longomba?
I pushed the squeaky bench against the wall. It wouldn’t kill to get a few minutes of sleep. I had a long day ahead. I started to fade away, the sound of the music, chatter and the droning of the nearby grinding mill suddenly combining to form a sweet melody which got better and better as my eyes got heavier and my mind foggier. It was like the hopeless drunkard version of Ehuhuwe, nyarara mwana, only much sweeter.
I woke up with a start, what looked like hours later, the bass of Macheso’s “Teererai” reverberating so deeply I could feel it in my oesophagus. True to form, the cracked beerhall floor was home to a million variation of the famous Borrowdale dance. A man stumbled and his huge industrial boot landed on my right sneaker.
“Ko imi blaz ndeipiko irikutambika iyi. Hamusi kuona kwamuri kuenda here? Can’t you see where you’re going?”
“Sorry, jahman pane munhu andisundidzira. Someone pushed me.” His speech was mildly slurred. The drinks had got to him.
“Bamunini musaita mafunnies handiti? Don’t try to be clever for no reason.” I was fuming in a way that surprised even myself.
“Sorry jahman. Zvinowanikwa izvi. It’s not my fault.” He sounded flagrant.
The slap caught him right across the face, and he reeled before landing on the bar floor with a violent thud. The dancefloor suddenly came to a standstill. All eyes were on me and my hapless victim. I picked the guy up by the collar and gave him two solid punches to the ribs. He bleated before falling into a heap like the drunken mess that he was. After a lot of pleading, I finally relented, kicked him in the belly and returned to sit down. I caught eye of the bouncers looking on. They didn’t want a part of it. The chatter picked up pace again, and within seconds, things had assumed normalcy.
The dance floor had returned to life. I decided to join in as more patrons flowed in. Soon, the bouncers would start turning people away, and pandemonium would inevitably break out, and a few people will go home nursing a couple of bruises and broken bones. A lady came and started dancing close to me, inviting me to come even closer. It was as if the fight, well, the beat down that had taken place, was some sort of opening ceremony because after that, the merriment went up a notch. You wouldn’t think that a young man had received a savage beating only a few minutes ago. These things happened every time on month ends. Drunk people got stupid, and drunk people got smacked. Or drunk people got unfortunate and got smacked. Bottom line was, drunk people ended up getting smacked. Which was normal. It didn’t have to stop the fun. It took me almost a minute to identify the woman. The makeup had completely transformed her. My partner in crime. She smiled when she saw my shock and kept dancing. Then she turned, her face intense, and whispered, “24. Left, left, right. 37 right, left, right.” I immediately knew what she meant. I kept on dancing, then after a few minutes, sneaked out. I began tracing the steps according to my partner’s instructions. I found the first car, and true to my partner’s investigations, it was unattended, isolated, and one of the front windows were open. I quickly went to work. I picked a handbag and two phones that were inside the car and walked away toward the second car. Business was brisk.
I had spent the last hour or so wondering what had gone wrong. How had I walked so easily into such an unsophisticated trap? A surreal feeling of déjà vu engulfed me. The scene at the army checkpoint. It was business as usual. I had taken money from two cross border traders. Except they weren’t. They were military police officers in civilian clothes. Had I been just a tad less complacent I would have detected this in the calmness of their tone and their general demeanour that they were not ordinary civilians. But I allowed my air of invincibility take charge. A simple trap that sunk my career. Now I had fallen into the same situation. And I was going to lose much more than I had lost when I got booted out of the army.
This was supposed to be an easy job. We had undertaken riskier jobs before and had come out completely untouched. It was inexplicable how this had turned out this way. Something was amiss. I just couldn’t accept it being a case of luck running out. And where was my partner? The room I was in was tiny and suffocating and there seemed to be a million smirking and mocking faces looking at me from the grimy walls. Where did it all go wrong? I retraced my steps.
I had found a wad of cash right in the front seat of the second car. The door was not locked. No alarm bells rang. I had no reason to suspect anything. My partner was excellent at picking out vulnerability, and she was highly dependable. Also, this was end of month. People tended to get a little careless with their valuables.. I had shoved the cash in my little back pack and walked away. I immediately contacted my partner, and we agreed to meet at our favourite place: deep in the woods, behind the water tank. She never showed up. But someone else did. A few other guys did, the fake intelligence operatives I had seen milling around at the bar. It was a clear ambush. I wasn’t scared. I never shied away from a fight. Then suddenly, one of them whipped out a gun. I realised things were getting serious, but I was still not scared. These guys probably had not shot a bird in their entire lives, let alone a full, able-bodied human. Then one of them flashed his ID and identified himself as a detective. This was about to be a hard arrest. The day was turning on its head from nowhere. My mind raced. I still wasn’t afraid. I had walked out of almost similar situations before.
“How do I know you are a real officer? There are a lot of unemployed kids pretending to be police officers these days. It was even on the news the other day.”
“Mdhara, you can ask those questions at the police station. We have no time for those games,” the stern-faced officer with a scar across his face said. He was the one holding the gun.
For the first time in a while, I felt a smidgen of genuine fear. These guys meant business.
“If you are a real detective, then lower the gun.” I said, feigning nonchalance. My voice wavering slightly. They all burst out laughing. Suddenly, they started advancing. I remained rooted to the spot
There was no point running away. The scarred detective wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me. There was only one option. Fight. Find a way to snatch the gun, maybe. I resisted, but in the end they overpowered me and secured me in handcuffs before putting me in the back of their pick-up truck.
“Your phone is ringing,” a raspy voice said, plucking me out of my thoughts.
I looked up. The guy had a bored look on his pockmarked face.
“It’s your wife,” he added in the same lifeless tone.
I shook my head. What would I tell her? That I won’t be coming home today and maybe for the next ten years? That I had been arrested and am facing a long list of counts that date back to my time in the Army? That her beloved husband’s entrepreneurial pursuits took more creative forms than normally expected? No, I couldn’t do that. I had played too close to fire.
is a Zimbabwean writer based in Harare. His work has appeared in various publications including The Shallow Tales Review, and Kalahari Review. His short story was first runner-up in the 2021 Intwasa writing competition.