The Constant Gardener
The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart. He was standing. That much he afterwards remembered. He was standing and the internal phone was piping. He was reaching for something, he heard the piping so he checked himself in order to stretch down and fish the receiver off the desk and say, “Woodrow.” Or maybe, “Woodrow here.” And he certainly barked his name a bit, he had that memory for sure, of his voice sounding like someone else’s, and sounding stroppy: “Woodrow here,” his own perfectly decent name, but without the softening of his nickname Sandy, and snapped out as if he hated it, because the High Commissioner’s usual prayer meeting was slated to start in thirty minutes prompt, with Woodrow, as Head of Chancery, playing in-house moderator to a bunch of special-interest prima donnas, each of whom wanted sole possession of the High Commissioner’s heart and mind.
In short, just another bloody Monday in late January, the hottest time in the Nairobi year, a time of dust and water shortages and brown grass and sore eyes and heat ripping off the city pavements; and the jacarandas, like everybody else, waiting for the long rains.
Exactly why he was standing was a question he never resolved. By rights he should have been crouched behind his desk, fingering his keyboard, anxiously reviewing guidance material from London and incomings from neighboring African missions. Instead of which he
was standing in front of his desk and performing some unidentified vital act—such as straightening the photograph of his wife Gloria and two small sons, perhaps, taken last summer while the family was on home leave. The High Commission stood on a slope, and its continuing subsidence was enough to tilt pictures out of true after a weekend on their own.
Or perhaps he had been squirting mosquito spray at some Kenyan insect from which even diplomats are not immune. There had been a plague of “Nairobi eye” a few months back, flies that when squidged and rubbed accidentally on the skin could give you boils and blisters, and even send you blind. He had been spraying, he heard his phone ring, he put the can down on his desk and grabbed the receiver: also possible, because somewhere in his later memory there was a color-slide of a red tin of insecticide sitting in the out tray on his desk. So, “Woodrow here,” and the telephone jammed to his ear.
“Oh, Sandy, it’s Mike Mildren. Good morning. You alone by any chance?”
Shiny, overweight, twenty-four-year-old Mildren, High Commissioner’s private secretary, Essex accent, fresh out from England on his first overseas posting—and known to the junior staff, predictably, as Mildred.
Yes, Woodrow conceded, he was alone. Why?
“Something’s come up, I’m afraid, Sandy. I wondered if I might pop down a moment actually.”
“Can’t it wait till after the meeting?”
“Well, I don’t think it can really—no, it can’t,” Mildren replied, gathering conviction as he spoke. “It’s Tessa Quayle, Sandy.”
A different Woodrow now, hackles up, nerves extended. Tessa. “What about her?” he said. His tone deliberately incurious, his mind racing in all directions. Oh Tessa. Oh Christ. What have you done now?
“The Nairobi police say she’s been killed,” Mildren said, as if he said it every day.
“Utter nonsense,” Woodrow snapped back before he had given himself time to think. “Don’t be ridiculous. Where? When?”
“At Lake Turkana. The eastern shore. This weekend. They’re being diplomatic about the details. In her car. An unfortunate accident, according to them,” he added apologetically. “I had a sense that they were trying to spare our feelings.”
“Whose car?” Woodrow demanded wildly—fighting now, rejecting the whole mad concept—who, how, where and his other thoughts and senses forced down, down, down, and all his secret memories of her furiously edited out, to be replaced by the baked moonscape of Turkana as he recalled it from a field trip six months ago in the unimpeachable company of the military attaché. “Stay where you are, I’m coming up. And don’t talk to anyone else, d’you hear?”
Moving by numbers now, Woodrow replaced the receiver, walked round his desk, picked up his jacket from the back of his chair and pulled it on, sleeve by sleeve. He would not customarily have put on a jacket to go upstairs. Jackets were not mandatory for Monday meetings, let alone for going to the private office for a chat with chubby Mildren. But the professional in Woodrow was telling him he was facing a long journey. Nevertheless on his way upstairs he managed by a sturdy effort of self-will to revert to his first principles whenever a crisis appeared on his horizon, and assure himself, just as he had assured Mildren, that it was a lot of utter nonsense. In support of which, he summoned up the sensational case of a young Englishwoman who had been hacked to pieces in the African bush ten years ago. It’s a sick hoax, of course it is. A replay in somebody’s deranged imagination. Some wildcat African policeman stuck out in the desert, half loco on bangi, trying to bolster the dismal salary he hasn’t been paid for six months.
The newly completed building he was ascending was austere and well designed. He liked its style, perhaps because it corresponded outwardly with his own. With its neatly defined compound, canteen, shop, fuel pump and clean, muted corridors, it gave off a self-
sufficient, rugged impression. Woodrow, to all appearances, had the same sterling qualities. At forty, he was happily married to Gloria—or if he wasn’t, he assumed he was the only person to know it. He was Head of Chancery and it was a fair bet that, if he played his cards right, he would land his own modest mission on his next posting, and from there advance by less modest missions to a knighthood—a prospect to which he himself attached no importance, of course, but it would be nice for Gloria. There was a bit of the soldier about him, but then he was a soldier’s son. In his seventeen years in Her Majesty’s Foreign Service he had flown the flag in half a dozen overseas British missions. All the same, dangerous, decaying, plundered, bankrupt, once-British Kenya had stirred him more than most of them, though how much of this was due to Tessa he dared not ask himself.
“All right,” he said aggressively to Mildren, having first closed the door behind him and dropped the latch.
Mildren had a permanent pout. Seated at his desk he looked like a naughty fat boy who has refused to finish up his porridge.
“She was staying at the Oasis,” he said.
“What Oasis? Be precise, if you can.”
But Mildren was not as easily rattled as his age and rank might have led Woodrow to believe. He had been keeping a shorthand record, which he now consulted before he spoke. Must be what they teach them these days, thought Woodrow with contempt. How else does an Estuary upstart like Mildren find time to pick up shorthand?
“There’s a lodge on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, at the southern end,” Mildren announced, his eyes on the pad. “It’s called the Oasis. Tessa spent the night there and set off next morning in a four-track provided by the lodge’s owner. She said she wanted to see the birthplace of civilization two hundred miles north. The Leakey dig? He corrected himself. The site of Richard Leakey’s excavation. In the Sibiloi National Park.”
“Wolfgang provided a driver. His body’s in the four-track with hers.”
“The lodge’s owner. Surname to follow. Everyone calls him Wolfgang. He’s German, apparently. A character. According to the police, the driver’s been brutally murdered.”
“Who’s missing? You said he was in the car with her.”
“The head’s missing.”
I might have guessed that for myself, mightn’t I? “How’s Tessa supposed to have died?”
“An accident. That’s all they’re saying.”
“Was she robbed?”
“Not according to the police.”
The absence of a theft, coupled with the driver’s murder, had Woodrow’s imagination racing. “Just give it me exactly as you have it,” he ordered.
Mildren rested his big cheeks in his palms while he again consulted his shorthand. “Nine-twenty-nine, incoming from Nairobi police headquarters flying squad asking for the High Commissioner,” he recited. “I explained that H.E. was in town visiting ministries, due back ten A.M. latest. An efficient-sounding duty officer, name supplied. He said reports were coming in from Lodwar—”
“Lodwar? That’s miles from Turkana!”
“It’s the nearest police station,” Mildren replied. “A four-track, property of the Oasis Lodge, Turkana, had been found abandoned on the east side of the lake, short of Allia Bay, on the way to the Leakey site. The bodies were thirty-six hours old at least. One dead white female, death unexplained, one headless African, identified as Noah the driver, married with four children. One Mephisto safari boot, size seven. One blue bush jacket, size XL, bloodstained, found on the floor of the car. The woman in her mid-to-late twenties, dark-haired, one gold ring on third finger of left hand. One gold necklace on the car floor.”
That necklace you’re wearing, Woodrow heard himself saying in mock challenge as they danced.
My grandmother gave it to my mother on her wedding day, she answered. I wear it with everything, even if it’s out of sight.
Even in bed?
“Who found them?” Woodrow asked.
“Wolfgang. He radioed the police and informed his office here in Nairobi. Also by radio. The Oasis has no telephone.”
“If the driver was headless, how can they know it was the driver?”
“He had a crushed arm. That’s why he took up driving. Wolfgang watched Tessa drive off with Noah on Saturday at five-thirty, in the company of Arnold Bluhm. That was the last time he saw them alive.”
He was still quoting from notes or if he wasn’t he was pretending to. His cheeks were still in his hands and he seemed determined they should stay here, for there was a stubborn rigidity across his shoulders.
“Give me that again,” Woodrow ordered, after a beat.
“Tessa was accompanied by Arnold Bluhm. They checked into the Oasis Lodge together, spent Friday night there and set off in Noah’s jeep next morning at five-thirty,” Mildren repeated patiently. “Bluhm’s body wasn’t in the four-track and there’s no trace of him. Or none reported so far. Lodwar police and the flying squad are on site but Nairobi headquarters want to know if we’ll pay for a helicopter.”
“Where are the bodies now?” Woodrow was his soldier father’s son, crisp and practical.
“Not known. The police wanted the Oasis to take charge of them but Wolfgang refused. He said his staff would walk out and so would his guests.” A hesitation. “She booked in as Tessa Abbott.”
“Her maiden name. ‘Tessa Abbott, care of a PO box in Nairobi.’ Ours. We haven’t got an Abbott so I ran the name across our records and got Quayle, maiden name Abbott, Tessa. I gather it’s the name she uses for her relief work.” He was studying the last page of his notes. “I’ve tried to raise the High Commissioner but he’s doing the ministries and it’s rush hour,” he said. By which he meant: this is President Moi’s modern Nairobi, where a local call can take half an hour
of listening to I’m sorry, all lines are busy, please try again later, repeated tirelessly by a complacent woman in middle age.
Woodrow was already at the door. “And you’ve told nobody?”
“Not a soul.”
“Have the police?”
“They say no. But they can’t answer for Lodwar and I shouldn’t think they can answer for themselves.”
“And Justin’s been told nothing as far as you know.”
“Where is he?”
“In his office, I assume.”
“Keep him there.”
“He came in early. It’s what he does when Tessa’s on a field trip. Do you want me to cancel the meeting?”
Aware by now, if he ever doubted it, that he was coping with a Force Twelve scandal as well as a tragedy, Woodrow darted up a back staircase marked Authorized Staff Only and entered a glum passage that led to a closed steel door with an eyehole and a bell button. A camera scanned him while he pressed the button. The door was opened by a willowy redheaded woman in jeans and a flowered smock. Sheila, their number two, kiSwahili speaker, he thought automatically.
“Where’s Tim?” he asked.
Sheila pressed a buzzer then spoke into a box. “It’s Sandy in a hurry.”
“Hold for figures one minute,” cried an expansive male voice.
“Coast now totally clear,” the same voice reported as another door burped open.
Sheila stood back and Woodrow strode past her into the room. Tim Donohue, the six-foot-six Head of Station, was looming in front of his desk. He must have been clearing it, for there was not a paper in sight. Donohue looked even sicker than usual. Woodrow’s wife Gloria insisted he was dying. Sunken, colorless cheeks. Nests of
crumbling skin below the drooping yellowed eyes. The straggling mustache clawed downward in comic despair.
“Sandy. Greetings. What can we do you for?” he cried, peering down on Woodrow through his bifocals and grinning his skull’s grin.
He comes too close, Woodrow remembered. He overflies your territory and intercepts your signals before you make them. “Tessa Quayle seems to have been killed somewhere near Lake Turkana,” he said, feeling a vindictive urge to shock. “There’s a place called Oasis Lodge. I need to talk to the owner by radio.”
This is how they’re trained, he thought. Rule one: never show your feelings, if you have any. Sheila’s freckled features, frozen in pensive rejection. Tim Donohue still grinning his foolish grin—but then the grin hadn’t meant anything in the first place.
“Been what, old boy? Say again?”
“Killed. Method unknown or the police aren’t saying. The driver of her jeep had his head hacked off. That’s the story.”
“Killed and robbed?”
“Near Lake Turkana.”
“What the hell was she doing up there?”
“I’ve no idea. Visiting the Leakey site, allegedly.”
“Does Justin know?”
“Anyone else we know involved?”
“One of the things I’m trying to find out.”
Donohue led the way to a soundproofed communications booth that Woodrow had never seen before. Colored telephones with cavities for code lozenges. A fax machine resting on what looked like an oil drum. A radio set made of stippled green metal boxes. A home-printed directory lying on top of them. So this is how our spies whisper to each other from inside our buildings, he thought. Over-world or underworld? He never knew. Donohue sat himself at the radio, studied the directory, then fumbled the controls with trembling
white fingers while he intoned, “ZNB 85, ZNB 85 calling TKA 60,” like a hero in a war film. “TKA 60, do you read me, please? Over. Oasis, do you read me, Oasis? Over.”
A burst of atmospherics was followed by a challenging, “Oasis here. Loud and clear, mister. Who are you? Over”—spoken in a raffish German accent.
“Oasis, this is the British High Commission in Nairobi, I’m passing you to Sandy Woodrow. Over.”
Woodrow leaned both hands on Donohue’s desk in order to come closer to the microphone.
“This is Woodrow, Head of Chancery. Am I speaking to Wolfgang? Over.”
“Chancellery like Hitler had one?”
“The political section. Over.”
“OK, Mr. Chancery, I’m Wolfgang. What’s your question? Over.”
“I want you to give me, please, your own description of the woman who checked into your hotel as Miss Tessa Abbott. That’s correct, is it? That’s what she wrote? Over.”
“What did she look like? Over.”
“Dark hair, no makeup, tall, late twenties, not British. Not for me. South German, Austrian or Italian. I’m a hotelier. I look at people. And beautiful. I’m a man too. Sexy like an animal, how she moves. And clothes like you could blow them off. That sound like your Abbott or somebody else’s? Over.”
Donohue’s head was a few inches from his own. Sheila was standing at his other side. All three of them were gazing at the microphone.
“Yes. That sounds like Miss Abbott. Can you tell me, please: when did she make the reservation at your hotel, and how? I believe you have an office in Nairobi. Over.”
“Dr. Bluhm made the reservation. Two persons, two cabins close to the pool, one night. We’ve only got one cabin free, I tell him. OK,
he’ll take it. That’s some fellow. Wow. Everybody looks at them. The guests, the staff. One beautiful white woman, one beautiful African doctor. That’s a nice sight. Over.”
“How many rooms does a cabin have?” Woodrow asked, feebly hoping to head off the scandal that was staring him in the face.
“One bedroom, two single beds, not too hard, nice and springy. One sitting room. Everybody signs the register here. No funny names, I tell them. People get lost, I got to know who they are. So that’s her name, right? Abbott? Over.”
“Her maiden name. Over. The PO box number she gave is the High Commission.”
“Where’s the husband?”
“Here in Nairobi.”
“So when did Bluhm make the reservation? Over.”
“Thursday. Thursday evening. Radios me from Loki. Tells me they expect to leave Friday first light. Loki like Lokichoggio. On the northern border. Capital of the aid agencies working South Sudan. Over.”
“I know where Lokichoggio is. Did they say what they were doing there?”
“Aid stuff. Bluhm’s in the aid game, right? That’s the only way you get to Loki. Works for some Belgian medical outfit, he told me. Over.”
“So he booked from Loki and they left Loki on Friday morning early. Over.”
“Tells me they expect to reach the west side of the lake around noon. Wants me to fix them a boat to bring them across the lake to the Oasis. ‘Listen,’ I tell him. ‘Lokichoggio to Turkana, that’s a hairy drive. Best you ride with a food convoy. The hills are lousy with bandits, there’s tribes stealing each other’s cattle, which is normal, except that ten years ago they had spears and today they all got AK47s.’ He laughs. Says he can handle it. And he can. They make it, no problem. Over.”
“So they check in, then sign the register. Then what? Over.”
“Bluhm tells me they want a jeep and a driver to go up to Leakey’s place first light next morning. Don’t ask me why he didn’t mention it when he booked, I didn’t ask him. Maybe they only just decided. Maybe they didn’t like to discuss their plans over the radio. ‘OK,’ I tell him. ‘You’re lucky. You can have Noah.’ Bluhm’s pleased. She’s pleased. They walk in the garden, swim together, sit at the bar together, eat together, tell good night to everybody, go to their cabin. In the morning they leave together. I watch them. You want to know what they had for breakfast?”
“Who saw them leave apart from you? Over.”
“Everybody who’s awake sees them. Packed lunch, box of water, spare gas, emergency rations, medical supplies. All three of them in the front and Abbott in the middle, like one happy family. This is an oasis, OK? I got twenty guests, mostly they’re asleep. I got forty staff, mostly they’re awake. I got about a hundred guys I don’t need hanging round my car park selling animal skins and walking sticks and hunting knives. Everyone who sees Bluhm and Abbott leave waves bye-bye. I wave, the skin sellers wave, Noah waves back, Bluhm and Abbott wave back. They don’t smile. They’re serious. Like they’ve got heavy business to do, big decisions, what do I know? What you want me to do, Mr. Chancery? Kill the witnesses? Listen, I’m Galileo. Put me in prison, I’ll swear she never came to the Oasis. Over.”
For a moment of paralysis Woodrow had no further questions, or perhaps he had too many. I’m in prison already, he thought. My life sentence started five minutes ago. He passed a hand across his eyes and when he removed it he saw Donohue and Sheila watching him with the same blank expressions they had worn when he told them she was dead.
“When did you first get the idea something might have gone wrong? Over,” he asked lamely—like, Do you live up there all year round? Over. Or, How long have you been running your nice hotel? Over.
“The four-track has a radio. On a trip with guests, Noah is supposed to call and say he’s happy. Noah doesn’t call. OK, radios fail,
drivers forget. To make a link it’s boring. You got to stop the car, get out, set up the aerial. You still hearing me? Over.”
“Loud and clear. Over.”
“Except Noah never forgets. That’s why he drives for me. But he doesn’t call. Not in the afternoon, not in the evening. OK, I think. Maybe they camped somewhere, gave Noah too much to drink or something. Last thing in the evening before shutdown I radio the rangers up around the Leakey site. No sign. First thing next morning I go to Lodwar to report the loss. It’s my jeep, OK? My driver. I’m not allowed to report the loss by radio, I’ve got to do it in person. It’s a hell of a journey but that’s the law. The Lodwar police really like helping citizens in distress. My jeep went missing? Tough shit. It had two of my guests and my driver in it? Then why don’t I go look for them? It’s a Sunday, they’re not expecting to work today. They got to go to church. ‘Give us some money, lend us a car, maybe we help you,’ they tell me. I come home, I put a search party together. Over.”
“Consisting of whom?” Woodrow was getting back into his stride.
“Two groups. My own people, two trucks, water, spare fuel, medical supplies, provisions, Scotch in case I need to disinfect something. Over.” A cross-broadcast intervened. Wolfgang told it to get the hell off the air. Surprisingly, it did. “It’s pretty hot up here right now, Mr. Chancery. We got a hundred and fifteen Fahrenheit plus jackals and hyenas like you got mice. Over.”
A pause, apparently for Woodrow to speak.
“I’m listening,” Woodrow said.
“The jeep was on its side. Don’t ask me why. The doors were closed. Don’t ask me why. One window open like five centimeters. Somebody closed the doors and locked them, took away the key. The smell unspeakable, just from the little gap. Hyena scratches all over, big dents where they’d tried to get in. Tracks all round while they went crazy. A good hyena smells blood ten kilometers away. If they’d been able to reach the bodies they’d have cracked them open one bite, got the marrow out the bones. But they didn’t. Somebody locked the
door on them and left the bit of window open. So they went crazy. So would you. Over.”
Woodrow struggled to get his words together. “The police say Noah was decapitated. Is that right? Over.”
“Sure. He was a great guy. Family’s worried crazy. They got people everywhere looking for his head. If they can’t find the head they can’t give him a decent funeral and his spirit will come back to haunt them. Over.”
“What about Miss Abbott? Over—” a vile vision of Tessa without her head.
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Throat cut. Over.”
A second vision, this time of her killer’s fist as it ripped off her necklace to clear the way for the knife. Wolfgang was explaining what he did next.
“Number one, I tell my boys, leave the doors closed. Nobody’s alive in there. Anybody opening the doors is going to have a very bad time. I leave one group to light a fire and keep watch. I drive the other group back to the Oasis. Over.”
“Question. Over.” Woodrow was struggling to hold on.
“What’s your question, Mr. Chancery? Come in, please. Over.”
“Who opened the jeep? Over.”
“The police. Soon as the police arrived, my boys get the hell out the way. No one likes police. No one likes to be arrested. Not up here. Lodwar police came first, now we’ve got the flying squad, plus some guys from Moi’s personal Gestapo. My boys are locking the till and hiding the silver, except I haven’t got any silver. Over.”
Another delay while Woodrow wrestled for rational words.
“Was Bluhm wearing a safari jacket when they set out for Leakey’s place? Over.”
“Sure. Old one. More a waistcoat. Blue. Over.”
“Did anyone find a knife at the scene of the murder? Over.”
“No. And it was some knife, believe me. A panga with a Wilkinson
blade. Went through Noah like butter. One swing. Same with her. Vump. The woman was stripped naked. Lot of bruising. Did I say that? Over.”
No, you didn’t say that, Woodrow told him silently. You omitted her nakedness completely. The bruising also. “Was there a panga in the four-track when they set out from your lodge? Over.”
“I never knew an African yet who didn’t take his panga on safari, Mr. Chancery.”
“Where are the bodies now?”
“Noah, what’s left of him, they give him to his tribe. Miss Abbott, the police sent a motor dinghy for her. Had to cut the jeep roof off. Borrowed our cutting equipment. Then strap her to the deck. No room for her downstairs. Over.”
“Why not?” But he was already wishing he hadn’t asked.
“Use your imagination, Mr. Chancery. You know what happens to corpses in this heat? You want to fly her down to Nairobi, you better cut her up or she won’t get into the hold.”
Woodrow had a moment of mental numbness and when he woke from it he heard Wolfgang saying yes, he had met Bluhm once before. So Woodrow must have asked him the question, although he hadn’t heard it himself.
“Nine months back. Bear-leading a party of fat cats in the aid game. World food, world health, world expense accounts. Bastards spent a mountain of money, wanted receipts for twice the amount. I tell them to get fucked. Bluhm liked that. Over.”
“How did he seem to you this time? Over.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Was he different in any way? More excitable or strange or anything?”
“What are you talking about, Mr. Chancery?”
“I mean—do you think it possible he was on something? High on something, I mean?” He was floundering. “Well, like—I don’t know—cocaine or something. Over.”
“Sweetheart,” said Wolfgang, and the line went cold.
Woodrow was once more conscious of Donohue’s probing stare. Sheila had disappeared. Woodrow had the impression she had gone to do something urgent. But what could that be? Why should Tessa’s death require the urgent action of the spies? He felt chilly and wished he had a cardigan, yet the sweat was pouring off him.
“Nothing more we can do for you, old boy?” Donohue asked, with peculiar solicitude, still staring down at him with his sick, shaggy eyes. “Little glass of something?”
“Thank you. Not at present.”
They knew, Woodrow told himself in fury as he returned downstairs. They knew before I did that she was dead. But that’s what they want you to believe: we spies know more about everything than you do, and sooner.
“High Commissioner back yet?” he asked, shoving his head round Mildren’s door.
“Cancel the meeting.”
Woodrow did not head directly for Justin’s room. He looked in on Ghita Pearson, Chancery’s most junior member, friend and confidante of Tessa. Ghita was dark-eyed, fair-haired, Anglo-Indian and wore a caste mark on her forehead. Locally employed, Woodrow rehearsed, but aspires to make the Service her career. A distrustful frown crossed her brow as she saw him close the door behind him.
“Ghita, this one’s strictly for you, OK?” She looked at him steadily, waiting. “Bluhm. Dr. Arnold Bluhm. Yes?”
“What about him?”
“Chum of yours.” No response. “I mean you’re friendly with him.”
“He’s a contact.” Ghita’s duties kept her in daily touch with the relief agencies.
“And a chum of Tessa’s, obviously.” Ghita’s dark eyes made no comment. “Do you know other people at Bluhm’s outfit?”
“I ring Charlotte from time to time. She’s his office. The rest are field people. Why?” The Anglo-Indian lilt to her voice that he had found so alluring. But never again. Never anybody again.
“Bluhm was in Lokichoggio last week. Accompanied.”
A third nod, but a slower one, and a lowering of the eyes.
“I want to know what he was doing there. From Loki he drove across to Turkana. I need to know whether he’s made it back to Nairobi yet. Or maybe he returned to Loki. Can you do that without breaking too many eggs?”
“I doubt it.”
“Well, try.” A question occurred to him. In all the months he had known Tessa, it had never presented itself till now. “Is Bluhm married, d’you know?”
“I would imagine so. Somewhere down the line. They usually are, aren’t they?”
They meaning Africans? Or they meaning lovers? All lovers?
“But he hasn’t got a wife here? Not in Nairobi. Or not so far as you’ve heard. Bluhm hasn’t.”
“Why?”—softly, in a rush. “Has something happened to Tessa?”
“It may have done. We’re finding out.”
Reaching the door to Justin’s room, Woodrow knocked and went in without waiting for an answer. This time he did not lock the door behind him but, hands in pockets, leaned his broad shoulders against it, which for as long as he remained there had the same effect.
Justin was standing with his elegant back to him. His neatly groomed head was turned to the wall and he was studying a graph, one of several ranged around the room, each with a caption of initials in black, each marked in steps of different colors, rising or descending. The particular graph that held his attention was titled RELATIVE INFRASTRUCTURES 2005–2010 and purported, so far as Woodrow could make out from where he stood, to predict the future prosperity of African nations. On the windowsill at Justin’s left stood a line of potted plants that he was nurturing. Woodrow identified jasmine and balsam, but only because Justin had made gifts of these to Gloria.
“Hi, Sandy,” Justin said, drawing out the “Hi.”
“I gather we’re not assembling this morning. Trouble at mill?”
The famous golden voice, thought Woodrow, noticing every detail as if it were fresh to him. Tarnished by time but guaranteed to enchant, as long as you prefer tone to substance. Why am I despising you when I’m about to change your life? From now until the end of your days there will be before this moment and after it and they will be separate ages for you, just as they are for me. Why don’t you take your bloody jacket off? You must be the only fellow left in the Service who goes to his tailor for tropical suits. Then he remembered he was still wearing his own jacket.
“And you’re all well, I trust?” Justin asked in that same studied drawl of his. “Gloria not languishing in this awful heat? The boys both flourishing and so forth?”
“We’re fine.” A delay, of Woodrow’s manufacture. “And Tessa is up-country,” he suggested. He was giving her one last chance to prove it was all a dreadful mistake.
Justin at once became lavish, which was what he did when Tessa’s name was spoken at him. “Yes, indeed. Her relief work is absolutely nonstop these days.” He was hugging a United Nations tome to himself, all of three inches thick. Stooping again, he laid it to rest on a side table. “She’ll have saved all Africa by the time we leave, at this rate.”
“What’s she gone up-country for, actually?”—still clutching at straws—“I thought she was doing stuff down here in Nairobi. In the slums. Kibera, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed she is,” said Justin proudly. “Night and day, the poor girl. Everything from wiping babies’ bottoms to acquainting paralegals with their civil rights, I’m told. Most of her clients are women, of course, which appeals to her. Even if it doesn’t appeal quite so much to their menfolk.” His wistful smile, the one that says if only. “Property rights, divorce, physical abuse, marital rape, female circumcision, safe sex. The whole menu, every day. You can see why their husbands get a little touchy, can’t you? I would, if I was a marital rapist.”
“So what’s she doing up-country?” Woodrow persisted.
“Oh, goodness knows. Ask Doc Arnold,” Justin threw out, too casually. “Arnold’s her guide and philosopher up there.”
This is how he plays it, Woodrow remembered. The cover story that covers all three of them. Arnold Bluhm, M.D., her moral tutor, black knight, protector in the aid jungle. Anything but her tolerated lover. “Up where exactly?” he asked.
“Loki. Lokichoggio.” Justin had propped himself on the edge of his desk, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Woodrow’s careless posture at the door. “The World Food Program people are running a gender awareness workshop up there, can you imagine? They fly unaware village women down from South Sudan, give them the crash course in John Stuart Mill and fly them back aware. Arnold and Tessa went up to watch the fun, lucky dogs.”
“Where is she now?”
Justin appeared not to like this question. Perhaps it was the moment when he realized there was purpose to Woodrow’s small talk. Or perhaps—thought Woodrow—he didn’t take kindly to being pinned down on the subject of Tessa, when he couldn’t pin her down himself.
“On her way back, one assumes. Why?”
“Presumably. He wouldn’t just leave her there.”
“Has she been in touch?”
“With me? From Loki? How could she be? They haven’t got telephones.”
“I thought she might have used one of the aid agencies’ radio links. Isn’t that what other people do?”
“Tessa’s not other people,” Justin retorted, as a frown collected on his brow. “She has strong principles. Such as not spending donors’ money unnecessarily. What’s going on, Sandy?”
Justin scowling now, shoving himself away from the desk and placing himself upright at the center of the room with his hands behind his back. And Woodrow, observing his studiously handsome face and graying black hair in the sunlight, remembered Tessa’s hair, the same color exactly, but without the age in it, or the restraint. He remembered the first time he saw them together, Tessa and Justin,
our glamorous newly wedded arrivals, honored guests of the High Commissioner’s welcome-to-Nairobi party. And how, as he had stepped forward to greet them, he had imagined to himself that they were father and daughter, and he was the suitor for her hand.
“So you haven’t heard from her since when?” he asked.
“Tuesday when I drove them to the airport. What is this, Sandy? If Arnold’s with her she’ll be all right. She’ll do what she’s told.”
“Do you think they could have gone on to Lake Turkana, she and Bluhm—Arnold?”
“If they had transport and felt like it, why not? Tessa loves the wild places, she has a great regard for Richard Leakey, both as an archaeologist and as a decent white African. Surely Leakey’s got a clinic up there? Arnold probably had work to do and took her along. Sandy, what is this?” he repeated indignantly.
Delivering the death blow, Woodrow had no option but to observe the effect of his words on Justin’s features. And he saw how the last remnants of Justin’s departed youth drained out of him as, like some kind of sea creature, his pretty face closed and hardened, leaving only seeming coral.
“We’re getting reports of a white woman and an African driver found on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Killed,” Woodrow began deliberately, avoiding the word “murdered.” “The car and driver were hired from the Oasis Lodge. The lodge’s owner claims to have identified the woman as Tessa. He says she and Bluhm spent the night at the Oasis before setting out for the Richard Leakey site. Bluhm’s still missing. They’ve found her necklace. The one she always wore.”
How do I know that? Why, in God’s name, do I choose this moment to parade my intimate knowledge of her necklace?
Woodrow was still watching Justin. The coward in him wanted to look away, but to the soldier’s son it would have been like sentencing a man to be executed and not showing up for his hanging. He watched Justin’s eyes widen in injured disappointment, as if he had been hit from behind by a friend, then dwindle to almost nothing, as if the same friend had knocked him unconscious. He watched his
nicely carved lips part in a spasm of physical pain, then gather themselves into a muscular line of exclusion turned pale by pressure.
“Good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have been pleasant. Does Porter know?” Porter was the High Commissioner’s improbable first name.
“Mildren’s chasing him up. They found a Mephisto boot. Size seven. Does that figure?”
Justin was having difficulty coordinating. First he had to wait for the sound of Woodrow’s words to catch up with him. Then he hastened to respond in brisk, hard-won sentences. “There’s this shop off Piccadilly. She bought three pairs last home leave. Never seen her splash out like that. Not a spender as a rule. Never had to think about money. So she didn’t. Dress at the Salvation Army shop. Given half a chance.”
“And some kind of safari tunic. Blue.”
“Oh she absolutely hated the beastly things,” Justin retorted, as the power of speech came back to him in a flood. “She said if I ever caught her wearing one of those khaki contraptions with pockets on the thighs I should burn it or give it to Mustafa.”
Mustafa, her houseboy, Woodrow remembered. “The police say blue.”
“She detested blue”—now apparently on the verge of losing his temper—“she absolutely loathed anything paramilitary.” The past tense already, Woodrow noticed. “She once owned a green bush jacket, I grant you. She bought it at Farbelow’s in Stanley Street. I took her, don’t know why. Probably made me. Hated shopping. She put it on and promptly had a fit. ‘Look at me,’ she said. ‘I’m General Patton in drag.’ No, sport, I told her, you’re not General Patton. You’re a very pretty girl wearing a bloody awful green jacket.”
He began packing up his desk. Precisely. Packing to leave. Opening and shutting drawers. Putting his file trays into his steel cupboard and locking it. Absently smoothing back his hair between moves, a tic that Woodrow had always found particularly irritating in him. Gingerly switching off his hated computer terminal—stabbing at it with
his forefinger as if he was afraid it would bite him. Rumor had it that he got Ghita Pearson to switch it on for him every morning. Woodrow watched him give the room a last sightless look round. End of term. End of life. Please leave this space tidy for the next occupant. At the door Justin turned and glanced back at the plants on the window sill, perhaps wondering whether he should bring them with him, or at least give instructions for their maintenance, but he did neither.
Walking Justin along the corridor, Woodrow made to touch his arm, but some kind of revulsion caused him to withdraw his hand before it made contact. All the same he was careful to walk close enough to catch him if he sagged or stumbled in some way, because by now Justin had the air of a well-dressed sleepwalker who had abdicated his sense of destination. They were moving slowly and without much sound, but Ghita must have heard them coming because as they passed her door she opened it and tiptoed alongside Woodrow for a couple of paces while she murmured in his ear, holding back her golden hair so that it didn’t brush against him.
“He disappeared. They’re searching high and low for him.”
But Justin’s hearing was better than either of them could have anticipated. Or perhaps, in the extremity of emotion, his perceptions were abnormally acute.
“You’re worrying about Arnold, I expect,” he told Ghita, in the helpful tone of a stranger indicating the way.
* * *
The High Commissioner was a hollowed, hyperintelligent man, an eternal student of something. He had a son who was a merchant banker and a small daughter called Rosie who was severely brain-damaged, and a wife who, when she was in England, was a Justice of the Peace. He adored them all equally and spent his weekends with Rosie strapped to his stomach. Yet Coleridge himself had somehow remained stranded on the brink of manhood. He wore a young man’s braces with baggy Oxford trousers. A matching jacket hung behind
the door on a hanger with his name on it: P. Coleridge, Balliol. He stood poised at the center of his large office, his tousled head tipped angrily to Woodrow as he listened. There were tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
“Fuck,” he announced furiously, as if he had been waiting to get the word off his chest.
“I know,” said Woodrow.
“That poor girl. How old was she? Nothing!”
“Twenty-five.” How did I know that? “About,” he added, for vagueness.
“She looked about eighteen. That poor bugger Justin with his flowers.”
“I know,” Woodrow said again.
“Does Ghita know?”
“What the hell will he do? He hasn’t even got a career. They were all set to throw him out at the end of this tour. If Tessa hadn’t lost her baby, they’d have ditched him in the next cull.” Sick of standing in one place, Coleridge swung away to another part of the room. “Rosie caught a two-pound trout on Saturday,” he blurted accusingly. “What do you make of that?”
Coleridge had this habit of buying time with unannounced diversions.
“Splendid,” Woodrow murmured dutifully.
“Tessa’d have been thrilled to bits. Always said Rosie would make it. And Rosie adored her.”
“I’m sure she did.”
“Wouldn’t eat it, mind. We had to keep the sod on life support all weekend, then bury it in the garden.” A straightening of the shoulders indicated that they were in business again. “There’s a back story to this, Sandy. A bloody messy one.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“That shit Pellegrin’s already been on the line bleating about limiting the damage”—Sir Bernard Pellegrin, Foreign Office mandarin
with special responsibility for Africa and Coleridge’s archenemy—“how the hell are we supposed to limit the damage when we don’t know what the fucking damage is? Ruined his tennis for him too, I expect.”
“She was with Bluhm for four days and nights before she died,” Woodrow said, glancing at the door to make sure it was still shut. “If that’s damage. They did Loki, then they did Turkana. They shared a cabin and Christ knows what. A whole raft of people saw them together.”
“Thanks. Thanks very much. Just what I wanted to hear.” Plunging his hands deep into his baggy pockets, Coleridge waded round the room. “Where the fuck is Bluhm, anyway?”
“They’re hunting high and low for him, they say. Last seen sitting at Tessa’s side in the jeep when they set out for the Leakey site.”
Coleridge stalked to his desk, flopped into his chair and leaned back with his arms splayed. “So the butler did it,” he declared. “Bluhm forgot his education, went berserk, topped the two of them, bagged Noah’s head as a souvenir, rolled the jeep on its side, locked it and did a runner. Well, wouldn’t we all? Fuck.”
“You know him as well as I do.”
“No, I don’t. I keep clear of him. I don’t like film stars in the aid business. Where the hell did he go? Where is he?”
Images were playing in Woodrow’s mind. Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. Bluhm and Tessa side by side, glad-handing guests while Justin the old debutantes’ delight purrs and smiles and pushes out the drinks. Arnold Bluhm M.D., sometime hero of the war in Algeria, discoursing from the rostrum of the United Nations lecture hall on medical priorities in disaster situations. Bluhm when the party’s nearly over, slumped in a chair and looking lost and empty, with everything worth knowing about him hidden five miles down.
“I couldn’t send them home, Sandy,” Coleridge was saying in the sterner voice of a man who has visited his conscience and come back reassured. “I never saw it as my job to ruin a man’s career just because
his wife likes to get her leg over. It’s the new millennium. People must be allowed to screw up their lives as they see fit.”
“She was doing a bloody good job out there in the slums, whatever anybody said about her up at the Muthaiga Club. She may have got up the noses of Moi’s Boys but Africans who mattered loved her to a man.”
“No question,” Woodrow agreed.
“All right, she was into all that gender crap. So she should be. Give Africa to the women and the place might work.”
Mildren entered without knocking.
“Call from Protocol, sir. Tessa’s body’s just arrived at the hospital morgue and they’re asking for an immediate identification. And the press agencies are screaming for a statement.”
“How the hell did they get her to Nairobi so fast?”
“Flew her,” Woodrow said, recalling Wolfgang’s repulsive image of slicing up her body to get it into the hold.
“No statement till she’s been identified,” Coleridge snapped.
* * *
Woodrow and Justin went there together, crouching on the slatted bench of a High Commission Volkswagen van with tinted windows. Livingstone drove, with Jackson his massive fellow Kikuyu squeezed beside him on the front seat for added muscle in case they needed it. With the air-conditioning on high the van was still a furnace. The city traffic was at its demented worst. Crammed Matutu minibuses hurtled and honked to either side of them, poured out fumes and hurled up dust and grit. Livingstone negotiated a roundabout and pulled up outside a stone doorway surrounded by chanting, swaying groups of men and women. Mistaking them for demonstrators Woodrow let out an exclamation of anger, then realized they were mourners waiting to collect their bodies. Rusted vans and cars with red cortege ribbons were parked expectantly along the curb.
“There is really no need for you to do this, Sandy,” Justin said.
“Of course there’s a need,” said the soldier’s son nobly.
A gaggle of police and medical-looking men in spattered white overalls waited on the doorstep to receive them. Their one aim was to please. An Inspector Muramba presented himself and, smiling delightedly, shook hands with the two distinguished gentlemen from the British High Commission. An Asian in a black suit introduced himself as Surgeon Doctor Banda Singh at their service. Overhead pipes accompanied them down a weeping concrete corridor lined with overflowing dustbins. The pipes supply the refrigerators, thought Woodrow, but the refrigerators don’t work because there’s a power cut and the morgue has no generators. Dr. Banda led the way, but Woodrow could have found it on his own. Turn left, you lose the smell. Turn right, it gets stronger. The unfeeling side of him had taken over again. A soldier’s duty is to be here, not to feel. Duty. Why did she always make me think of duty? He wondered whether there was some ancient piece of superstition about what happened to aspiring adulterers when they gazed on the dead bodies of the women they had coveted. Dr. Banda was leading them up a short staircase. They emerged in an unventilated reception hall where the stench of death was all-pervading.
A rusting steel door stood closed against them and Banda hammered on it in a commanding manner, leaning back on his heels and rapping four or five times at calculated intervals as if a code were being transmitted. The door creaked open partway to reveal the haggard, apprehensive heads of three young men. But at the sight of the surgeon doctor they reeled back, enabling him to slither past them, with the result that Woodrow, left standing in the stinking hall, was treated to the hellish vision of his school dormitory given over to the AIDS-dead of all ages. Emaciated corpses lay two a bed. More corpses lay on the floor between them, some dressed, some naked on their backs or sides. Others had their knees drawn up in futile self-protection and their chins flung back in protest. Over them, in a swaying, muddy mist, hung the flies, snoring on a single note.
And at the center of the dormitory, parked by itself in the passage
between the beds, stood matron’s ironing board, on wheels. And on the ironing board, an arctic mass of winding-sheet, and two monstrous semihuman feet protruding from it, reminding Woodrow of the duck-feet bedroom slippers he and Gloria had given to their son Harry last Christmas. One distended hand had somehow contrived to remain outside the sheet. Its fingers were coated in black blood and the blood was thickest at the joints. Its fingertips were aquamarine blue. Use your imagination, Mr. Chancery. You know what happens to corpses in this heat?
“Mr. Justin Quayle, please,” Dr. Banda Singh called, with the portent of a barker at a royal reception.
“I’m coming with you,” Woodrow muttered and, with Justin at his side, stepped bravely forward in time to see Dr. Banda roll back the sheet and reveal Tessa’s head, grossly caricatured and bound chin-to-skull in a strip of grimy cloth which had been led round the throat where her necklace had once hung. A drowning man rising to the surface for the last time, Woodrow recklessly took in the rest: her black hair plastered to her skull by some undertaker’s comb. Her cheeks puffed out like a cherub’s blowing up a wind. Her eyes closed and eyebrows raised and mouth open in lolling disbelief, black blood caked inside as if she’d had all her teeth pulled at the same time. You? she is blowing stupidly as they kill her, her mouth formed into an oo. You? But who does she say it to? Who is she ogling through her stretched white eyelids?
“You know this lady, sir?” Inspector Muramba inquired delicately of Justin.
“Yes. Yes, I do, thank you,” Justin replied, each word carefully weighed before it was delivered. “It’s my wife Tessa. We must fix her funeral, Sandy. She’ll want it to be here in Africa as soon as possible. She’s an only child. She has no parents. There is no one apart from me who needs to be consulted. Better make it as soon as possible.”
“Well, I suppose that will have to depend a bit on the police,” said Woodrow gruffly and was barely in time to make it to a cracked hand basin, where he vomited his heart out while Justin the ever-
courteous stood at his shoulder with his arm round him, murmuring condolences.
* * *
From the carpeted sanctuary of the Private Office, Mildren slowly read aloud to the blank-voiced young man on the other end of the line:
The High Commission is sad to announce the death by murder of Mrs. Tessa Quayle, the wife of Justin Quayle, First Secretary in Chancery. Mrs. Quayle died on the shores of Lake Turkana, close to Allia Bay. Her driver Mr. Noah Katanga was also killed. Mrs. Quayle will be remembered for her devotion to the cause of women’s rights in Africa, as well as for her youth and beauty. We wish to express our deep sympathy to Mrs. Quayle’s husband Justin and her many friends. The High Commission flag will be flown at half-mast until further notice. A book of condolence will be placed in the High Commission reception lobby.
“When will you be running that?”
“I just did,” said the young man.