Written and Read by M. Jones
“The secret to a good ugali is to cook it until it is a brick. You see, like this one, like a thick cake. Here, you put the nyama on the side like this, and let it soak up the juices. There is no more filling food in the world than ugali, ask any Kenyan you want. If you have trouble to sleep, this will fix that problem.”
Ashon Maalim, Rita’s father, loaded up Greg’s plate with the spongy starch and equal parts beef stew. Tall and reed thin, Ashon had all the hallmarks of a man who once had incredible strength in his youth, but overwork and worry had whittled him away through the years until, at the age of seventy, he finally decided to retire. Age and disease had ravaged his body, eating away at his muscles and weakening his bones until all that was left was an elderly reed that easily snapped. He was currently recuperating from a broken hip operation, though the bother of a major broken bone didn’t stop him from ruling his house or being hospitable to one of Rita’s friends.
The townhouse was small, but was big enough for the two of them, the kitchen a cramped space that Greg had witnessed hold more than ten people at a time. It was a quiet night in the Maalim household tonight, though the day no doubt had been busy, full of drifting friends and relatives who would stop in to say hello or help the recuperating Ashon with errands. There was still the risk of someone dropping in unexpectedly, and the front door was kept unlocked, just in case.
Rita busied herself in the tiny galley kitchen, doing dishes and then pulling out a couple of beers from the small fridge. She handed a bottle to Greg and kept one, her palm untwisting the cap. Ashon gave his daughter a disapproving grunt at this, and Rita placed a hand on her hip, daring him to challenge her.
“It’s a beer, dad. Not changaa.”
“You want to go and have a kill-me-quick, that’s up to you. I can’t make your decision.” Her father bid her to sit down. “Take a plate and eat.”
“I’m not hungry, I had a big lunch.”
“You fill your belly with garbage. I work all day to slave for this wonderful meal and you spend your hard-earned money on deep fried mud I wouldn’t feed a pig. Go on, have a bag of chips, then. You break my heart.”
Rita rolled her eyes and tipped the bottle to her lips, taking a long swig. Greg left his unopened, the meal he was given taking the majority of his attention. Being in the presence of someone he had quickly called a friend was a new experience for him, and one he was liking and getting used to.
Ever since his accident, the people he used to know had shied away from him, even professional associates, as if they could catch the lingering effects of a brain injury. People made huge assumptions based on his honesty, and he couldn’t blame them. Telling people that he spent most of his day navigating through the miasma of whatever his subconscious wanted to throw in that for other people would usually be background noise wasn’t easy for people to understand or hear.
“It’s like scenery,” he had said to a colleague when he’d gone to India last year. “You see the trees and rocks and the pretty blue sky, and I see disembodied wings and snakes writhing on the ground.” They were supposed to go for drinks after the flight. His colleague bailed the second the plane landed.
Rita’s home was different, and a lot of it had to do with her father. Anxiety tended to up the hallucinations, but the calm of her home kept them at bay, mostly to do with Ashon’s smooth voice and warm presence. This was a home full of infectious strength. It was no wonder Rita became the powerhouse she did in this kind of an environment, the love of her family pulling her through dark, frustrating days when she wanted to give up and throw her badge in the nearest creek. When she was passed up for a promotion, her father would buy her a cake and they would celebrate the fact that the time wasn’t right for her to be promoted, and only the universe knew why. Self-pity wasn’t an option.
“Did you get what you needed from the scene?” Rita asked, taking another healthy swig.
Her father tutted at this. “Talking shop over dinner. Let the man eat in peace.”
“It’s just a question, dad.”
Ashon punched his fist lightly on the table, his mouth a taut line. “Let him have something in his belly before he talks of murder, child. The table is not a place for such things.”
Rita cursed under her breath and her father shook his head at her insolence. Her work was a bone of contention with her father, one that had a far longer history that stretched right into her rookie days. As an African he was permanently suspicious of the police, the ingrained threat they represented in Ashon’s history a difficult prejudice to cure. Though he knew his daughter did good work and he was very proud of her, there was always that undercurrent of betrayal lurking within his encouragement, a fearful dredging of the past that recalled the horrors of the guerilla gangs that overtook his boyhood village.
Greg knew what her father was trying to do. He was aware Greg had been admitted to the hospital and he had already guessed as to why. In his own way, he was trying to cure his guest of all ill feeling, making sure he stayed healthy and mentally strong. The best way to do that was to bring the afflicted person into the fold of family and ensure they were protected from all outside evil influence. Greg witnessed this ethos himself after brief assignments in Africa, where poverty was more about being alone than whether or not one had enough to eat at the end of the day.
It was a kind gesture, but not what Greg really wanted or needed at present. He did long to talk to Rita about the photographs he had taken that morning, to get lost in the description of the details he had already begun to piece together. There were over three hundred pictures in his camera and a good hundred were already pasted in a circular collage on his wall. He needed this more than she knew. This wasn’t just work for him, the photographs were his template to reality, and from them he could piece together a detailed story, one where no speck of dust was unseen.
He’d put together a whole visual novel that afternoon, going through a sickening amount of printer ink. The images from his camera were now pasted onto his wall in a specific storyboard that was a madman’s cryptic monologue, waiting for him to translate.
“Putting bad things in people’s heads is rude, don’t you agree my friend?” Ashon shoveled his stew into his mouth, only pausing to take a drink from a tall glass of ice water. “It is better to have good dreams, and we do that by being respectful of the slumber of the dead. Let them dream of the grave, while we dream of life.”
Greg wished it could be that easy. Right now, Rachel Wallace was in the empty seat where Ashon had placed his long dead wife’s portion. Blood dripped from her smashed bottom jaw onto the small offering on her plate.
He wouldn’t let her presence destroy his appetite, not when Ashon had gone to so much trouble. Instead, he dove his fork into the ugali, mopping up portions of meat, vegetables and gravy with the white polenta-like bread and took a large bite. He washed it down with a fresh, cold glass of water before turning back to Rita, who was now lazily lying on the couch in the nearby living room.
“What do you know about this Dr. Herberte?” he asked. “You said June had a meeting with him last night.”
“She didn’t say too much.” Rita yawned and dared to pick up the TV controller, the bottle of beer perched on the battered coffee table beside her. “He has an accent, she said. French. He’s not from this country, though, so I assume he’s from France. You’d think he’d settle into Montreal and not Toronto. I wonder what made him make that decision.” She frowned and sat up, her long limbs still taking up the majority of the couch. “His office is right downtown, just down from Yonge and Bloor. Tiny little space, June said. It’s in one of those older Victorian homes on that side street down towards Wellesley.”
She turned her head toward him, her long braids splayed out behind her on the couch’s red cushion, a sense of personal ease emanating from her that Greg couldn’t help but envy. “You can walk there from your flat. So no excuses, you’re not going to miss that appointment.””You know June won’t let me help you guys if I don’t go, so yes, I get it, no need to nag.” Ashon remained stoically silent on the matter, a kindness Greg appreciated. “I kind of feel sorry for the guy, he has his work cut out for him when it comes to me.”
“I have said to you before you cannot look upon what you have as a burden,” Ashon suddenly said, his mouth still working around his delicious stew.
Rachel’s corpse was gone, which was a relief, but the room was full of the usual tiny, flittering illusions. A pair of disembodied bird wings fluttered against the corner of the kitchen cabinet.
“You are a gifted man, and for this you should feel privilege. In Kenya you would be a mganga, highly respected and wealthy because your powers can be trusted. Fearing the genii and thinking a doctor can take them away is foolishness. They are there for you to use, it is up to you to be wise with them.”
Though he appreciated Ashon’s positive spin on his condition, Greg had no doubts about its detrimental effect on his life. First were the practical inconveniences, like the fact he couldn’t drive. It wasn’t safe for him to be on the highway, not when he’d hallucinate the road turning to lava, fireballs erupting beside him in grotesque fury. He hadn’t learned a defensive driving technique to avoid those kinds of obstacles. The worst part was knowing how those violent images wouldn’t affect him, how he’d know it wasn’t real, but that didn’t mean he was safe; the true danger was that he couldn’t see the road ahead of him. It was just his mind replacing scenery, his own mental wallpaper overlapped on concrete reality.
He saw things, but he wasn’t crazy. Make sense of that, Fancy French Head Doctor, Greg thought.
He finished his meal and silently brought his own and Ashon’s dishes to the empty sink in the kitchen. Rita followed him in, her cell phone taking half of her attention.
“June says the Super is pissed at her for leaving out some of the details. But they haven’t made the connection with the Calgary murders yet, we still have a chance to break the case all on our own.” She gave him a hooded look and kept her voice low, her eyes darting toward her father’s back in the tiny dining room. “She’s banging the coroner, did you know that? Started seeing him two months ago, and you can bet she’s got him on her side right now.”
“She’s committing career suicide,” Greg said, genuinely concerned. He glanced over his shoulder at Ashon who was still seated at the dining table, pretending to mind his own business. Greg turned on the tap so Rita’s father couldn’t overhear their conversation. “Can you get me copies of the forensic photos from the Calgary scene? I know it’s risky, it might open up some windows into this case that you want to keep closed for now, but I could really use those as a reference alongside the pictures I took today.”
“I’ll send them to your email. No one is watching us that closely, at least not yet.”
“Okay.” He gave her a small smile before going back to the dining table and giving Ashon’s hand a firm shake. “Thank you for the dinner, my friend, it was delicious.”
Ashon clacked his false teeth in irritation. “Why are you going? Always in a rush you young people.”
“I didn’t know thirty-eight was still considered young.”
“When you get to my age everyone younger than you is an infant.”
© 2016 Copyright M. Jones
Presented by BigWorldNetwork.com