Written by Dilman Dila
|Dilman Dila, the author of this short story is a Ugandan writer and filmmaker, currently in Nepal making a documentary film about intercaste marriage. Dila has had several short stories published in both online and print magazines over the years. One of them Homecoming, won a nomination at the 2008 Million Writers Awards: Notable Online Stories of 2007. Dila’s short films have also appeared in several international film festivals, including Clermont-Ferrand in France, Durban in South Africa and on SKY TV.|
A full moon lit the first night for the visitors as they took tea on the porch. Meg, a native who married Joe Paulson when she went to study in London, asked me turn off all the lights so that her guests could enjoy their first African moon.
Winnie Hoodge, the one who started all the trouble, said she’d never noticed the moon’s beauty before. That the night sky in London, where she lived with her husband Peter, who sat next to her, wasn’t so real.
Peter said: “We should’ve come here for our honeymoon.”
And Winnie scowled. It however passed so quickly that the others didn’t see it. At sixty, I was fifteen years older than any of them, but my sight was good.
“I’ll spend my next one here,” said Chelsea Croele, Winnie’s partner in a chain of shopping malls, thrice married but with no children.
Winnie nearly dropped her cup at Chelsea’s remarks. The scowl returned. To hide it, she put the cup on the table and reached for a hanky to wipe her face.
“That’s if the Paulsons let you,” Winnie’s cousin Tim Collins, a small man with glasses, said. At thirty five, he was the youngest person on the porch that night.
At this point, I retreated to the kitchen. I didn’t hear or see anymore, and it wasn’t until later that the significance of this conversation struck me.
Meg drank secretly. She paid me to mix her tea with waragi, a strong intoxicant. She became quieter with each sip of this brew. The guests couldn’t understand her gradual shift from a jovial host to a brooding housewife.
At about nine, when the fatigue of the day was beginning to tell on all of them, a firecracker went off.
The Paulsons had thrown a birthday party for their son the day before. This boy and his sisters had earlier left for a week long stay with an aunt, but the police believed the Paulsons sent the children away to spare them the trauma of witnessing a murder. The porter normally removes every crumb of cake off the lawn after a Paulson party. This time round, he (suspiciously) missed a firecracker bigger than his fist. The toy had a timing device to set it off. It failed to explode at the party, but remembered it was supposed to entertain guests and went off a day too late.
Everybody on the porch jumped. Meg fled into the house, screaming, and the other five scrambled after her.
I was in the kitchen. I came out with the two other cooks to investigate the commotion. We turned on the lights. I went to the porch. The firecracker gave a final pop-pop. The sparks went out. The night regained silence. I returned to the living room.
Meg came out of the dining, wavering on her feet. She looked at me with glazed eyes. Joe appeared behind her.
“What was that, Simon?” he asked me.
“A firecracker,” I said. “Opita didn’t clean the lawn thoroughly.”
He nodded. He walked out to the porch. You could see his silhouette through the windows. Chelsea and Peter came out from behind a sofa. I got a funny feeling that they’d been kissing. Peter wiped his mouth. His eyes shone with happiness. Chelsea tried to look innocent. Tim and Winnie came from the hall. Winnie was panting and the most shaken of them all. Her fingers dug into Tim’s hands as she sought comfort and reassurance. Her face was white.
“What was that?” she asked no one in particular.
“Firecrackers,” I said.
“I don’t believe that,” she said.
“We had John’s party yesterday,” Joe said. “You met my son John, didn’t you?”
“I know John,” Winnie said, “but what was the firecracker doing in the lawn? Why did it go off at this time?”
No one had any answer. They trooped back to the porch. I went with them to clean the table. The biscuit and groundnut bowls had spilled their contents, so had one of the tea pots. Winnie slumped onto her chair – no, it wasn’t her chair. It was Meg’s, but she didn’t notice. She’d sat next to the host all evening. Her hanky was on the table closer to Meg’s chair than to hers. She, given the shock, easily took up the wrong chair.
And inevitably reached for the wrong cup of tea.
The alarm showed on Meg’s face. She looked at me for help. I shrugged.
Winnie sipped the tea and immediately spat it out. She slapped the cup on the table, half emptying it and cracking the handle. She jumped with a scream.
“Someone’s trying to kill me!”
No one knew how to react to that.
“Calm down, honey!” Peter her husband said.
“Don’t you honey me!” she screamed at him. “You are the top suspect!”
For a moment, I feared a nip of Meg’s tea had knocked her off.
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” Chelsea said.
“Oh! You Chelsea!” she turned on her partner. “What set off that firecracker, if at all it was a firecracker?” Chelsea started to say something. Winnie didn’t give her a chance. “The murderer wanted us to run from this table so he, or she, could poison my tea!”
“Impossible,” Joe said.
“Taste it! Taste the tea!”
Joe took a step towards her, but stopped and stared at the cup with a frown. I think he noticed it was Meg’s cup. For a time, he’d suspected Meg had secret bottles. He once asked me if I put anything in her tea. I denied it. Meg was my relative. Well, we had to draw diagrams in the sand to establish the relationship, but that was enough blood between us for me to be loyal to her. Moreover, she gave me big tips to satisfy her secret hobby. I couldn’t betray her. But now, Joe looked at the cup with a frown.
“One of you wants me dead,” Winnie said in a calmer voice. “You each have a motive. Joe and Meg, you want to run this project on your own! I started it. I funded it for years before it could get on its feet. Isn’t it a lucrative business, this charity thing? You get a lot of money and you don’t pay tax. You think if the Chairperson of the board, that’s me, is dead, you Joe will become the new Chairperson and you two will get more money!”
The charity she talked about worked to improve the health and education facilities in our county. It built schools and health centers. For long, we’d suspected that the Paulson’s were in it for money, not for the love of helping the poor.
“Gosh,” Peter said. “These are out hosts, Winnie. We’re all very close friends. This is supposed to be a vacation!”
Joe fixed his wife a glare that had one question. Meg understood the question, but couldn’t stand her husband’s eyes. Tim Collins later told the police that the way Joe looked at his wife was an admission of guilt.
“I have a headache,” Meg said. “I’ll retire now. Goodnight, everyone.” She abruptly walked away from the porch.
“You upset her, Winnie,” Chelsea said. “Why do you say such things?”
Winnie turned on her. “If I die you assume sole ownership of Gala!” The chain of shopping malls they owned. “Or probably it’s you, Tim.” She pirouetted to her cousin. “The only relative I have. Like Peter, you stand to inherit my money!”
“I’m sorry,” Peter apologized to Joe. “I don’t know what’s got into her head.”
Joe was now looking at me the way he’d looked at his wife. I could still read the question in his eyes and I couldn’t deny it anymore. I nodded.
“What got into my head is that someone is trying to kill me!” Winnie’s voice rose again. “You all have motives. All you now seek is an opportunity!”
“That’s not your cup,” Joe said. “You sipped my wife’s tea. It tastes funny because she puts alcohol in it.”
Winnie looked down at the cup. It came to her that she’d sat on the wrong seat and drunk from the wrong cup. She hurriedly took her own seat and picked her cup, but couldn’t put it on her lips. She was trembling. She started to cry.
I lived two miles from the Paulson mansion. I left for home at about eleven. My bicycle had no headlamps, yet I rode fast without fear of an accident for the full moon lit up the sandy paths. The village looked deserted in sleep. The only sounds were from crickets, frogs and a solitary dog barking at the moon. I enjoyed coasting in the still and quite night. It made me feel young.
I drank two beers I’d snitched from the Paulson’s and watched TV for an hour before going to bed. My house belongs to the lucky few in the village, with brick walls and iron sheet roofing. While most folk sleep on mats, can’t afford blankets and listen to croaky radios, I own a comfortable bed and a TV. On occasions like Christmas, scores of folk came to watch my TV. Solar panels pinned to the roof provided the electricity. My children are educated, have good jobs and can support me. I got this good life after cooking for twenty years at Sheraton.
They next morning, the guests visited the schools and health centers. They had lunch at two o’clock and did not go out again. We were in the dry season, the time of no rains and hot sunshine. They lolled under a shady tree, playing a card game, in the lawn.
I didn’t have to start cooking supper until six, so I took a walk.
Tim Collins asked where I was going. “For a smoke at the pond,” I replied. The Paulsons didn’t like smoke in their house.
“I’ll come with you.” He abandoned the card game amid protests from his colleagues and ran to me, smiling awkwardly.
We walked in silence to the pond. To access it, we had to climb a ten feet high mountain of rocks (I went over it without panting), then descend twenty feet to the shores. I sat on a rock under a cool tree, my favorite spot. Tim sat next to me. I lit a cigarette.
At this time of the year, the hundred feet wide pond had green slime on its surface. Flowery vegetation draped the mountain of rocks that formed a ring around the water. White stones pocked the muddy shore. Several bird species flew about, chirping and singing to add beauty to the scene.
“Amazing,” Tim said, taking pictures with a digital camera. “Amazing.”
“It’s a taboo site,” I said.
“You are kidding.” He knelt and aimed the camera at a colorful bird perched on a rock that jutted out of the water.
“Locals keep away from it,” I said. “Children don’t play here. Nobody brings his cattle here for a drink. It’s a good thing the rocks enclose it.”
“Why?” Tim took several pictures of the bird. “Gotcha!”
“Dead bodies.” I took a long drag of my cigarette.
He probably thought I was joking because he laughed.
“It used to be a popular playground for children, but one would drown every year. People believe there are ghosts in the water. Nobody comes here anymore. I think that’s why murderers dump victims here.”
He smiled. “Probably that horrible Winnie will end up here.” I joined him in the laughter.
“We last had a murder three years ago,” I said. “A man killed his brother in a quarrel over land and thought no one would know if he hid the body here.”
“You don’t believe it’s haunted,” he said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t come here.”
“I do,” I said. “Stones don’t sink in that water. They bounce.”
“Watch.” I threw a rock into the pond. It bounced thrice before it sunk.
“Wow!” Tim said.
“Now do you believe it’s haunted?”
It took him nearly a minute to reply. He watched the pond all this time. The color of his face had changed.
“Let’s go back,” he whispered.
I laughed. “I scared you, didn’t I?”
He looked at me confused. He tried to laugh in vain. “How did you do it?”
I threw in another rock. It bounced four times.
“There’s no magic,” I said. “If you shoot low and hard so that the stone takes an almost horizontal flight, it will bounce like a ball.”
Tim tried. It took him several attempts before he made it.
“Wow!” he said. “I’m Houdini! I’ll bring them here to see my magic!”
That night during supper, Tim told them about the pond. I’d brought them a bowl of mushroom soup. They were talking about beaches and where to go on their next holiday.
“Why don’t we go and relax in the pond?” Tim said, looking at me.
“What pond?” Peter said.
“You can’t enjoy a pond the way you enjoy an ocean,” Chelsea said.
“Don’t talk about that pond,” Meg said. “Not now.”
Joe stole a glance at Winnie and the paranoid woman caught him looking at her.
“Why can’t he talk about the pond?” Winnie said. “What’s there in the pond?”
“It’s a haunted site,” Tim said. “The locals avoid it because dead bodies keep turning up there. Murderers deposit victims in it because no one ever goes there.”
Everyone turned to Winnie, for she’d dropped her spoon and her face had lost color. She was struggling to keep the food in her mouth. She lost the battle and dumped the stuff into the napkin on her lap.
“Is that where you’ll deposit my body?” she said.
“Oh God,” Chelsea said.
“Jeez!” Tim said. “What got into your head?”
“What got into my head!” She half rose from her chair, but only to throw away the napkin she’d soiled. It fell on the wall behind her and slipped to the floor. I wondered whether to pick it up.
“She never behaves like this,” Peter said, apologizing for her behavior. “I just can’t –”
“Peter,” Winnie hissed, “when I die the police will question you first. You won’t tell them that we don’t have sex anymore, will you? You won’t mention that we quarrel every time we go to bed, so I better publicize it. PETER IS CHEATING ON ME!”
“Shut up!” Peter shot out of his chair, banging his fist on the table at the same time. He upset a glass.
“You won’t shut me up! You are cheating on me with Chelsea!”
“Oh Winnie!” Chelsea said.
“Don’t you Oh Winnie me!”
“I’m not sleeping with your husband!” Chelsea shouted back.
I didn’t want to listen to the row. I walked back to the kitchen.
“Where then did he go last night? He wasn’t in bed for a whole hour! Where was he if not in your bed! You two want to kill me then Gala will be yours!”
I was out of the dining room at this time, back in the kitchen, but she was yelling. I could hear everything. Tim said something I didn’t hear because he didn’t shout.
“Just paranoid! Why did you go with that cook to the pond? He’s the cook, Tim! He can poison my food!”
The two other cooks knew little English, but they understood what she was talking about. They looked at me with pity.
“He took you to that pond to show you where you can deposit my body after he’s poisoned me! Didn’t he?”
Joe and Meg loved to eat, but they couldn’t get good food in a village like ours. Then Meg heard I was once a Sheraton chef. She didn’t say much to lure me out of retirement. A little income in old age couldn’t hurt, and I’d get a chance to teach these two fine men the art. But that night, I wished I’d never stepped into their mansion. I took off my apron.
“I’m going,” I said to the other cooks. “I won’t come back.”
They were young men still struggling to pay bride price for their wives. They couldn’t afford to quit.
“We are going too,” one said. “If anything happens to that woman, they’ll say it’s us.”
We hung up our aprons and left by the back door. We didn’t tell anyone goodbye. We left food on the stoves and knew it would get ruined. We didn’t care. Our bicycles were in the shed in the backyard. We jumped on them and rode out fast.
We had to pass by the dining room window on our way out. The curtains were drawn. We saw the silhouettes of the people inside. I could identify Winnie’s from the headscarf she had on. I could also identify her husband’s for he was the only man in a coat. They shouted and tried to hit each other. The others fought to restrain them. That’s the last time I ever saw Winnie alive.
The next morning, I was still in bed at eight o’clock, reading an old newspaper like a truly retired fellow. A car roared into my compound. The Paulson truck, I knew before I looked out of the window. Still, I drew the curtain a bit and peeped. Joe jumped out of the Toyota, bare feet and in nightclothes.
“Simon!” he shouted as he hurried to my front door. He didn’t know my bedroom window. He’d have come straight to it. “Simon!”
I scrambled out of bed and got dressed. One of my sons, a twenty five year old man who’d visited us a few days before, restrained Joe from searching all the rooms. I found them in a mock wrestling match in the living room.
“Simon,” Joe said when I appeared, giving up the match. “Have you seen Winnie?”
I knew then that she was dead. Murdered.
“She’s missing.” His shoulders sagged as though he’d expected answers from me. “She locked herself in her room last night. Peter slept in Tim’s room. This morning, he tried to talk to her in vain. He knocked. She didn’t open. He thought she’d committed suicide. We asked Okello” – the guard – “to climb up the window and take a look. Okello broke a pane, parted the curtains and peeped in. He didn’t see her. She’s missing. Yet the room is locked from inside! The windows and the doors locked from inside!”
Joe was in a mess. Disintegrating. His skin resembled chalk dust. The tears in his eyes refused to spill out and seemed to irritate him.
“Go to the police,” I said.
“You think so?”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
I shrugged. “You shouldn’t drive. Let my son help. We’ll accompany you.”
The police post was just a collection of quotient huts under a giant mvule tree. We found no officer on duty, though it was nine with the sun shining like a doomsday fireball.
We went to the sub county headquarters, a long, white, 1920s building with red tiles for a roof and a ceiling made of bats. We found it deserted too. The people supposed to run our sub county hadn’t reported for duty. We however found a porter sweeping bat-shit out of the courthouse. The place stunk.
“I can take you to the sergeant’s home,” the porter told me in Swahili after I’d asked about the cops. “He doesn’t live far.”
We drove to the sergeant’s homestead. The women were already up and about. They pointed out the hut in which the sergeant slept. When I saw him, he struck me as one who’d spent a greater part of the night inside a pot of brew. His eyes were red like two balls of fires. He had a headache. He sobered up at the sight of Joe. He cleaned his face with his palms.
“We got a problem,” I said. “You have to come with us to this man’s home.”
“It might not be a problem at all,” Joe said.
We found Meg trying to entertain her remaining guests on the porch. Each had a cup of tea, which wasn’t hard for her to prepare. All she did was boil water in a kettle and pass tea bags around. They held the cups without taking the tea. They were all standing, in silence. As usual, Meg had more waragi than water in her tea. She was on the second cup when we arrived and the effects were beginning to tell on her.
The sergeant looked smart and sober in a gray uniform. He’d brushed his hair. He wore sunglasses to hide the redness of his eyes. He held an AK47 in a show off manner. Tim later remarked that he looked like a Sierra Leone rebel on the cover of BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine.
“I am Sergeant Pascal Kivumbi,” he said. “Sub County Police Commander” – a title that doesn’t exist – “Where is the missing woman?”
That question scared the people on the porch more than his appearance did.
“We don’t have anything to do with her disappearance,” Peter said. “We woke up this morning and she was gone without a trace.”
“Moreover her room is locked from inside,” Chelsea said. “How did she get out? How did she manage to lock that room from inside after she got out?”
“She just disappeared into the thin air,” Tim said.
“Let me see the room,” the sergeant said.
On the way to the room, I realized he was a better cop than I’d thought. We were climbing the stairs. Joe and his wife led. Meg still had her cup of tea. The cop followed them. I walked behind the cop. Peter, Chelsea and Tim were behind me. They still had their cups, though none was taking the tea. The cop stopped to stare at something on the stairs. Joe and his wife went a few steps up before they realized the sergeant had stopped. The three guests crowded behind me, trying to peer over my shoulder.
Sgt Pascal examined a smear of mud no bigger than a thumbprint. You wouldn’t have noticed it unless you were cleaning the stairs and looking out for such spots of dirt, yet this cop, wearing sunglasses, saw it.
“What’s that?” Joe said.
“Mud,” I said.
“Oh God,” Meg said, and took a sip of her tea.
“Is it a clue?” Chelsea asked no one in particular.
The cop went back down the stairs. The guests and I pressed ourselves into the railing to give him way. He got another piece of clue. Signs of wiping. Someone had stepped on the stairs with mud and tried to mop it off in a hurry. Whoever did it didn’t know how to swab the floor, and didn’t use a wet piece of cloth. Though the culprit succeeded in getting rid of the mud, he or she left water marks on the floor.
“Is it a clue?” Chelsea asked. No one gave her an answer.
The cop found more watermarks. They led to the dining room, then the kitchen and out the back door. From there, the clues vanished.
“Where did he get that mud?” Joe asked. “We are in the middle of a dry season. There’s dust all over. Where did all this mud come from?”
“The pond,” I said.
My suggestion stunned the Paulson’s and their guests. Chelsea gasped. Tim muttered something incoherent and Peter seemed to growl. Joe looked at me with alarm in his eyes. Meg took a very long swig from her cup.
The cop went back up the stairs. I followed him. The Paulsons and the guests didn’t move until we’d disappeared into the kitchen. I wanted to tell the sergeant what Winnie had said about someone plotting her murder, but Joe came hurrying behind me. The others stumbled after him, spilling their tea. The guests finally abandoned the cups on a table.
The cop followed the watermarks up the stairs. For a moment, I thought the mud would lead us right up to the culprit’s bed. The cop found something else in the corridor upstairs. A flower. Not a real flower for it was all thorn and no petals, a weed that clings to your clothes when you walk through a bush. It grew abundantly by the pond.
“When did you clean this house?” the cop asked Joe.
“I didn’t clean it!” Joe shrieked.
The Paulsons were health freaks. I told the sergeant that two women cleaned the mansion twice a day, at ten am and at six pm, combing every inch of the house for dirt and germs. Tim and I had returned from the pond at five thirty.
The sergeant pocketed the thorn.
We didn’t find any more mud spots, or watermarks. I think the culprit realized his shoes had mud and took them off at the top of the stairs. The mistake Sgt Pascal did was to let the suspects see his clues before he could make anything sensible out of them. I think the culprit found time to wipe the shoe clean, and dispose the cloth with thorns stuck on it, before the police searched the mansion.
The cop examined the door to the mystery room closely. He tried the knob, gave it a push. It didn’t budge. He peered into the key hole. A key stuck in the other side blocked his view.
“The bolts are pushed in too,” Joe said. “We didn’t enter the room. We only peeped in from the window.”
“Oh God,” Chelsea said. “We didn’t get in? Do you know what that means, Joe? We didn’t get in.”
“What does that mean?” Peter asked.
“Maybe she’s under the bed,” Chelsea said.
“Yes!” Suddenly excited, Joe had hope in his voice. “She might be under the bed! Why didn’t we think of it before?” The gloom left his face and he regained some of the color he’d lost. “Sorry to bother you, officer.”
Sergeant Pascal marched down the corridor to the stairs. Joe bounced after him. The guests followed Joe. Meg held my hands and made me wait until they were nearly at the stairs, out of earshot, then whispered.
“Did you tell Joe about my tea?”
“No,” I said.
“How did he know?”
I shrugged. “Let’s follow them. They’ll think we are hiding something. You heard what she said about me poisoning her.”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I don’t think she’s under the bed,” I added.
“These windows can be locked from outside. The catch isn’t complicated. If you suspend it vertically and push the window gently, it won’t fall into place. When you’ve closed the window, you give it a thump and the catch will fall into place, so it would look like someone locked it from inside.”
“Really?” Meg took a long swig from her cup.
Sgt Pascal climbed the ladder and peeked into the room. He examined the window for a long time before going through it. The pane was broken and most of the glass had fallen into the room. We were down in the verandah, eyes stuck on the window. No one said anything until the cop’s head popped out, almost fifteen minutes after he got in.
“Is she under the bed?” Joe asked.
The cop didn’t reply. He looked at the crowd gathered at the bottom of the ladder for a moment, then slowly came down.
“Is she under the bed?” Joe repeated the moment the cop had touched the ground.
“That window can be locked from outside,” the cop said. “You arrange the catch vertically, push the window gently into a locking position, and give it a shove. The catch will fall into a horizontal position, locking the window from inside.”
“We didn’t know that,” Chelsea said.
“You and who?” Peter said.
“We people who don’t live in this village. We who’ve never seen such locks.”
“Are you accusing our hosts?”
“No, of course not.”
“I’m going to the pond.” The cop walked away without waiting for anyone.
“Does that mean she isn’t under the bed?” Joe asked the cop but got no answer.
“Do you people see it?” Chelsea said. “She locked herself in. Now, if she’s dead, that means she willingly opened the door for the murderer.”
“She’s not dead,” Tim said. “She’s not murdered.”
“Who could she have opened the door for in the dead of night?”
“She’s not dead!” Tim said.
“She could have opened the door for any of us,” Joe said. “Not just her husband.”
“I didn’t mention her husband,” Chelsea said. She hurried after the cop.
“Why the pond?” Tim asked the cop, who hadn’t yet disappeared round the wall. “Why do we have to go to the pond? She’s not dead. She can’t be there.”
“Is she in the pond?” Meg asked me. “Is she really in the pond?”
“Did you take her to the pond?” Peter asked Tim. He advanced ominously at the smaller man. Peter had a big chest and hairy arms that peeped out of his t-shirt like a wrestler’s. He looked even more menacing in anger. Tim, a small man with glasses, shrunk into the grass at Peter’s advance.
“Did you take her to the pond?” Peter repeated. I thought he was going to pummel Tim and bury him right there in the backyard.
“I didn’t kill her!” Tim shrieked. The cop stopped to listen. “I didn’t kill her!”
For several seconds, the two men glared at each other. Tim whimpering on the ground, expecting Peter to stamp him; Peter towering above him, like a wrestler teasing a beaten foe, encouraging the spectators to roar. The quite spectators looked at them with anxiety.
“I didn’t kill her,” Tim said in a quieter voice.
The cop resumed his march to the pond. Chelsea hurried after the cop, her slippers slapping the verandah noisily. Joe touched Peter’s shoulder and slowly dragged him away from the whimpering Tim. Meg followed them. She no longer had her tea cup, though she cast me glances that told me she wished for one.
The cop stopped at the gate to question the night guard, Okello.
“I never sleep at all,” Okello in Swahili. “But last night someone drugged me! I fell asleep at about four. I was walking, then sleep overcame me under that tree, and I fell down. Asleep. I didn’t wake up until six. Someone drugged me!”
“Shut up!” Joe said. He knew a bit of Swahili. The anger in his voice made the guard jump in fright. “You are making this look like a murder!”
“What did he say?” Chelsea asked no one in particular.
“Let him talk,” the cop said.
“But he’s lying!” Joe said in English. “If he was drugged, that means someone put something in his food. All these people are guests. They wouldn’t know the guard’s food. Nor do we! So if he’s saying someone drugged him, he’s implying Simon did it! Which isn’t true because Simon is a good man.”
Everyone turned to me.
“You didn’t eat last night,” I told the guard in Swahili. “We didn’t bring you food. We left in a hurry. Unless someone gave you food after we left.”
“No, no one gave me food after you left,” the guard said.
At this point, my son joined us. He’d got fed up of sitting by himself in the car.
“Did you go to the kitchen to steal food?” the cop asked the guard.
“No. I was drugged! I fell to the ground while walking and slept until six!”
“Did you eat anything last night? Did you drink anything?”
“No. Only the cigarettes I bought on my way here.”
“What exactly is he saying?” Peter asked Joe, and the host retold the guard’s testimony.
It made sense for the murderer to put the guard to sleep for there was only one way into and out of the mansion. The gate. Razor sharp wires and broken bottles grace the top of the twenty feet high wall, making it an impossible way into or out of the house.
“Probably someone shot him with a dart gun,” I said in Swahili.
“What’s a dart gun?” the cop asked.
“The kind hunters and vets use to put animals to sleep,” I said. “Did you feel any pain before falling asleep?” I asked Okello.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
“Show us exactly where you fell asleep,” I said. “We might get the dart.”
The guard pointed out the spot. We searched for thirty minutes. We didn’t find the dart.
We followed the cop to the pond. It looked like a paradise that morning. The encircling cliff of white rocks draped in vegetation stood clear against a blue sky, casting a shadow that offered solace from the sun’s heat rays. Where there was no slime, the water sparkled in calmness. The birds chirped louder than ever, and darted about in larger numbers than I’d ever seen.
“Beautiful,” Chelsea said. “A pity the locals fear it.”
We expected to find the body floating in the water. We were disappointed. We stood there for about ten minutes, not knowing what to do next.
The cop walked around the pond. Everyone wanted to follow him, but the rocks and mud didn’t favor a lot of walking, especially if you didn’t have the right shoes. I was lucky to have a pair of gumboots on, the one I wore to my garden.
I followed the cop. He didn’t say anything until we were out of earshot of the rest, who sat on rocks to enjoy the beauty of the pond.
“Do you want to tell me something?”
“Yes,” I replied. “The missing woman feared one of those five people wanted to kill her.”
“Why?” The cop kept his eyes on the banks, looking for footprints. If the culprit left mud on the stairs, he must have left prints in the mud.
“She claimed the Paulsons want to control the project.”
“I thought those Paulsons owned the project.”
“Me too. But she said she was the chairman – I mean chairperson of the board. She controlled the money coming into the project, but the Paulsons wanted to get rid of her so that they can control the money. It’s in millions of dollars. Billions in our money.
“Same to the others. They get rich if she dies. That man in the blue t-shirt is Tim, her cousin. He gets some of her riches. Her husband is the big guy in the white t-shirt. They have no children so he is the beneficiary of her estates. That woman with red hair, Chelsea, assumes sole ownership of a big business.”
“Money killed Jesus,” the cop said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “She quarreled with her husband every night. She claimed he was sleeping with Chelsea.”
“Interesting,” the cop said. “More people kill because of love than because of money.”
We saw the footprints, a lot of it, going into and coming out of the pond. There were tracks amid the prints. Someone had dragged something heavy through the mud.
The cop dropped to the ground and examined the prints. They were smudgy, couldn’t reveal what kind or the size of the shoe that made them. The mud was wet and ankle-deep. That’s why the murderer still had it after a minute’s walk.
“He didn’t drag her very far in,” the cop said. “He put her close to the banks, with a stone to keep her down.” He paused. “Women don’t have strength to carry corpses this far.”
I didn’t agree, but kept mum.
“That leaves three suspects,” the cop said. “Tim Collins, Mr. Hoodge, and Mr. Paulson.”
The others noticed that we’d seen something. They started to make their way over the rocks and mud, walking with difficulty, tripping and falling, but hurrying over to us.
I laughed. I had a strong alibi. My wife and my son would swear that I never left the house from the time I returned in the night until Joe came in the morning. Moreover, there was no way I could have entered the mansion without the guard letting me in.
“Poison,” the cop said.
I couldn’t reply to that. The others reached, panting and puffing.
“Did you find the body?” Joe asked. Then he saw the prints in the mud. “Footprints! The murderer’s footprints!”
“You can’t tell whose they are by just looking at them,” Peter huffed.
“This wasn’t a murder,” Tim said. Unlike the others, he wasn’t out of breath. “This is just like stones bouncing on water.”
“What do you mean?” Chelsea asked him.
“Simon knows what I mean.”
I didn’t know what he meant. I frowned at him.
“You can make stones bounce on water, can’t you?” he asked me.
“What has that got to do with this murder?”
“It’s not a murder. Winnie claimed that someone wanted her dead. But why? Why did she suddenly get that idea? Those motives she gave have existed for ten years. We could have done it in those ten years. We didn’t. So why did she suddenly get the idea?”
“What has it got to do with stones bouncing on water?” I asked.
“You can do it if you know how to shoot the stone into the water.”
“What’s you point?” Joe asked.
“Winnie faked it! This isn’t a murder! There’s no body to prove it’s a murder. She all of a sudden started to yell that someone wants to kill her so that when she plays this disappearance act, we all think of murder!”
“Why would she do that?” Chelsea said. “Why would she want us, her best friends, to be suspects?”
“You can’t divert us from this,” Peter said, advancing towards Tim. This time, Tim didn’t back away. “If you did her, I’ll be the one to hang you.”
“It’s you who must give us answers,” Tim hissed. “Tell us why your wife wants to torment us.” His voice rose in anger. “Tell us why she wants us to be suspects yet there is no murder! Tell us why she faked her own death!”
“You did it!” Peter screamed.
“You made her feel worthless! You cheating animal!”
Peter swung a blow at Tim. Tim ducked. Joe and my son broke up the fight. Joe restrained Peter while my son restrained Tim. The cop watched with a bemused smile.
“Where you sleeping with Peter?” Meg asked Chelsea.
Chelsea couldn’t deny it anymore. She started to cry. “We didn’t mean anything.”
Tim’s theory made sense. If Winnie felt worthless because her husband was cheating on her with her best friend, she might want to commit suicide. She might become depressed. That depression can give rise to paranoia, and the end could be a group of people at the banks of a pond, wondering whether it’s a murder or a fake.
Winnie must have been listening all along and waited for this argument to break up before she decided to give us answers. Her toe suddenly stuck out of the slime.
The cop saw it first. He squinted at the green water. He took off his sunglasses and inched forwards for a better look.
We turned away from Tim and Peter and looked where the cop was looking. At first I didn’t see anything, but then I too made out the toe sticking out of the slime. It lingered for nearly a minute, waiting to capture our full attention, before the rest of the feet suddenly shot out.
Meg’s scream scared the birds away from a nearby tree. Chelsea started to cry. The cop waded into the water. He appeared calm, but from the way his lips danced, I could tell he was excited. He waded in with both hands and the gun up in the air. Chelsea’s sobbing and Meg’s whimpers seemed to replace the chirp of the birds.
The water was waist deep where the murderer had deposited Winnie. The cop took hold of her leg, rather too roughly, as though he was used to holding dead bodies, and gave her a tug. Something held her to the bottom of the pond. He gave another tug. Still, the corpse didn’t budge.
He asked my son to give him help.
The boy had to go under water to extricate the corpse from whatever was holding it. He couldn’t see anything down there. He had to feel his way from her feet to her head, looking for hindrances. Gruesome business, but this son of mine is a brave one. He discovered that rocks pinned the corpse by the feet and chest. Somehow, the one on the feet had slipped off, allowing the leg to peep out of the water. He shoved off the rocks and together with the cop dragged Winnie out.
She was in her nightie, which was wet and clung close to her body. We could see her nakedness. Weeds stuck to her hair. Her eyes were wide open. Her tongue stuck out of her mouth. Strangulation marks tattooed her throat.
That gave us three answers. She was dead. She was strangled. She wasn’t poisoned, so it took me off the suspects list. The only question left unanswered was who killed her?
Her fears were true. One of her five comrades wanted her dead. The cop questioned the natural suspect, her husband, at length, about their quarrels, about his affair with Chelsea. Then he questioned the Paulsons, about the project and who actually ran it. Then he talked to Tim Collins, about his relationship with Winnie. He talked to Chelsea last. Yet he didn’t find anything in the answers they gave him.
After the questioning, he searched the mansion. He sent my son to summon six officers to help in the search. They combed every inch of the mansion, looking for the dart gun, for the cloth that wiped mud off the stairs, for muddy shoes, for clothes with thorns stuck on them, for anything that might point to the culprit. They searched in vain. Even the clothes Tim wore to the pond the previous day had no thorns, yet mine did.
Winnie’s story hit the international press. BBC got it first. Scotland Yard came three weeks later. They found the dart gun in the pond. They had called it the missing link, but there were no prints on it and it was virtually untraceable.
The Yard discovered that Tim called a poacher in Kenya shortly before Tim came to Uganda, but they couldn’t prove that the poacher provided Tim with the dart gun.
In the end, the Yard claimed all five conspired to kill Winnie. The case went to court. The five won. It became a mystery without an ending, a case with five suspects and no murderer.
The publicity hurt the Paulsons charity so much that it ceased all activities two years after Winnie’s death. They now live a quite life in their mansion. They are volunteer teachers at a local school. I don’t work for them anymore.
Winnie’s lawyers fought to prevent Tim, Peter and Chelsea from inheriting her money and Gala, but after the trail, there was no reason why they couldn’t.
Many people, including me, believe these three conspired to murder without the cooperation of the Paulsons. I became firmly convinced of this last night, after BBC radio reported that Peter had married Chelsea. Tim was the best man. The Paulsons skipped the wedding.
©Dilman Dila 2011