The Hotel Job

This is something a little different. A new piece of fiction, in sort of the international spy thriller genre. Just something I’ve been playing around with, inspired by real events in  South Africa in 2014 which saw a Rwandan former spy mysteriously strangled in his hotel room. 

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

Smith was standing in another bland and sterile hotel lobby. As he waited for the polite but nervous receptionist (Thumi, Trainee, according to her name badge) to figure out the credit card swiping machine, he pondered the complete lack of any identifiable culture that large international hotels displayed. The lobby of the Hyatt in Bangkok looked just like the lobby of the Radisson in Delhi, which looked just like the lobby of this Hotel de Ville Metropolitain in Durban.  The only hint of local cultural influence came from the accents of the staff behind the front desk.

“Just a moment, Mr. Smith. I’m having difficulty with this credit card machine,” said Thumi. She jiggled the cable that connected the machine and then grimaced as the screen went blank. Biting her lower lip, she rebooted the machine and swiped his card for the third time.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t charge your card multiple times. I think there is a network error. It’s not going through. Just please let me try one more time. I will void the previous entries.”

“No hurry, it’s fine,” he said, “just take your time.” His smile and polite tone didn’t betray his growing impatience.

After what seemed like an eternity, Thumi finally coaxed the machine to spew out a curled slip of thin paper for his signature, along with three other slips showing voided transactions. She was blushing from embarrassment at having botched the transaction, but her dark complexion hid the flush of her cheeks. Swallowing his irritation, he flashed his most gracious smile and thanked her politely for her helpfulness before slinging his bag over his shoulder and making his way to the elevator to find his room on the 5th floor.

Room 531 was as dull as he expected. It was as if in the attempt to avoid offending anyone, the designer had perfected a blandness that offended everyone. A palate of muted pastels covered the walls, and the artwork was an innocuous collection of abstract squiggles. Nothing memorable. Anonymous. Just the way he liked to travel. He strove to make his appearance as unmemorable as the hotels he stayed in. He wore shades of khaki and earth tones, soft cottons and linens that provided comfort without attention-getting glamor. His clothes were business casual. Respectable, yet not overly formal. People would remember a man in a hand-tailored tuxedo sipping a martini at the blackjack table, but not a man in a beige jacket and khaki trousers sitting at the slot machines. Not being memorable was very important in his line of work.

Anonymity made him better at his job, it made him a more valuable asset. Eyewitnesses could not provide a unique description of him. He was nondescript, plain vanilla. He was Caucasian with brown hair and brown eyes, like millions of other people on every continent of the planet. He was tall but not so tall as to be memorable. He was neither fat nor skinny. Neither good looking nor ugly. Average in almost every way except intelligence. His IQ was solidly in the genius range.

***

Thumi was so angry she felt like kicking herself. She needed this job so desperately, her daughter Kethiwe depended on her. How could she screw up a simple credit card swipe? She was sure the guest had been ready to blow his lid, she had seen it happen only last week to Ndlovu, her fellow trainee, when he hadn’t been able to find a guest’s booking in the hotel’s computer system. The guest, a fat and bald Indian businessman from Mumbai, had turned bright red and fumed.

“You bloody African fool! I made my bloody booking a month in advance, how can you tell me it’s not in the system! I don’t care about your bloody system, I want my bloody room right now and I’m not paying one bloody rand more than the rate I booked online!”

Laurent, the front desk manager, had stepped in, obsequious and apologetic to the irate Indian guest. He quickly made a new booking and reassured the customer that the hotel would honor the price he had been quoted on the website. Laurent had given the irascible little man a free drink voucher for the hotel bar, which had seemed to appease him.

Later Ndlovu received a bitter tongue lashing from Laurent and was told in no uncertain terms that if he ever again allowed a guest to be kept waiting while he fumbled with the computer he would be out of a job post-haste. Ndlovu’s salary was docked for both the price of the drink voucher and the difference between the discounted room rate and the standard rate as punishment for his ineptitude.

Thumi had witnessed all this transpire in horror, certain that her budding hotel career was doomed. Today’s glitch with the card reader was just her latest mistake, and she was certain the American had been close to exploding in rage like the Indian had. Yet miraculously he hadn’t. Instead he had smiled at her and thanked her for being helpful. She had been lucky this time. But she inwardly vowed never to make this mistake again. She would remember this polite American and try to make up for her mistake when she saw him again.

 ***

Smith cleaned and loaded his Beretta .380 ACP pistol before stowing it in its hidden holster in his waistband. He wore a fresh pair of jeans from his suitcase and pulled a sweater over his t-shirt. He was going for a casual look tonight, not the business traveler look he adopted for airports. He was going shopping in the mall and he needed appropriate camouflage. A person in jeans and a gray sweater would blend in in any mall in the world.

He walked out of the hotel and crossed the street to what was said to be the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere. The iconic McDonald’s golden arches told him that American franchises had found their way to this far flung corner of Africa. He saw a Cinnabon and grumbled to himself that this could well be a sign of the apocalypse–fast food franchises selling high priced fatty globs that offered twice one’s daily caloric needs in one sugary lump. Of all aspects of American culture to export around the world, he thought the suburban shopping mall must surely be the most fatuous, with its acres of gleaming marble, its pretentious fountains, its row upon row of franchised stores offering things no one really needed at overinflated prices; interspersed with food and beverage kiosks offering countless express pathways to obesity. As a sworn defender of American freedom he cringed to think that he was partially responsible for contributing to this global spread of gluttonous consumerism.

Yet tonight he willingly flung himself among the horde of shockingly underdressed teens prowling the mall in loud and boisterous packs. His nose was assaulted by the intermingling stench of fast foods: pizza, burgers, pasta, cappuccino and the pungent tang of cinnamon and sugar wafting from the Cinnabon. He was only here for one mission, to purchase a SIM card for his telephone, which he found surprisingly easy to accomplish. For less than five US dollars, and in fewer than fifteen minutes, he emerged with a local phone number and prepaid airtime. He had registered the SIM card under one of his false passports, leaving no true record of its ownership. He was now connected with the rest of the world by an anonymous throw-away number.

Smith walked aimlessly around the mall for a while, not knowing what he was looking for and not looking for anything in particular. He found himself standing in front of a large bookstore and decided to go inside. He was a binge reader. Sometimes he would read 2 or 3 novels at the same time, staying up until the early morning hours turning page after page. Then he would go for long periods without reading anything at all. He remembered reading an article in the airline magazine about an incredibly talented young female author from Nigeria who had recently won a major literary prize and he decided to look for her latest novel.

The African Literature section was small and dominated by Afrikaans-language titles like “Boer Commando.” But he quickly found the novel he wanted, “Fried Plantains” by Enwelumoku Okonkwo, who was being called the next Chinua Achebe. In his head he did the price conversion and was surprised to learn that the book was half the price it sold for in the US, so he had the clerk ring it up and went out of the store to a coffee kiosk nearby. He read the first chapter while sipping a hot cappuccino in an overstuffed chair and immediately fell in love with Kemi, the female protagonist, whose sassy wit and charm had him laughing from the first page.

***

Thumi had left her shift at the hotel at 6pm and rushed out to catch the bus that would take her to her flat in Durban South. If the bus was on time and traffic wasn’t bad she would get home in time to have dinner with Khethiwe and give her a bath and read her a story before bedtime. There were no available seats on the bus, so she stood near the front, grasping the overhead rail, and pulled out a novel by her favorite author. She found her bookmark in the chapter where Kemi was arguing with her housemate because the housemate’s dog had eaten her sandwich, and she laughed as she remembered the incident.  She felt the bus gaining speed as it turned and went down the hill from the hotel toward the shopping mall. Without warning Thumi was tumbling through the air, slamming violently into the front of the bus, her bag and novel flying from her hands. Someone was screaming. A baby was crying somewhere. A sliver of glass from the broken windshield had sliced open Thumi’s scalp above her left eye and a trickle of blood was running down her face.

Smith’s mind was still in the fictional streets of Lagos as he stepped off the curb. He never saw the bus that nearly ended his life. He had left the mall with his new book tucked under his right arm and a smile on his face. Even after ten years of travel in over twenty countries, he could never get used to looking the wrong direction when crossing the street in a country that drove on the left side. He stepped off the curb into the one-way street looking left and thinking the way was clear when the 10-ton bus coming from his right veered to avoid slamming into him and instead swiped the entire side of a parked car, screeching to a halt in a cacophony of screeching tires, broken glass and hissing steam from the  punctured radiator.

Smith had a sudden vision of himself as an anonymous dying man, crushed under the wheels of a Durban city bus. He saw himself bleeding from fatal internal injuries and knowing that no one would notify his family. He wasn’t officially here, after all. He would get his anonymous star on the Memorial Wall in Langley but his family would never know why he hadn’t come back home.

But miraculously Smith hadn’t been killed. The driver had crashed the bus rather than run over him. Shaking off the shock of what had just happened, he realized he should do something. He ran to the bus to see if he could help the injured.

Thumi was using her scarf to stem the bleeding from her scalp. She was sitting dazed on the curb when he ran up, her copy of “Fried Plantains” sitting on her lap, blood dripping onto the cover.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

“Yes, I’m fine, just a small cut,” she replied with a smile, recognizing him from earlier in the day. “What happened?”

“Oh my god it’s all my fault. I didn’t see the bus coming and I stepped right in front of it, the driver swerved to avoid me and crashed into that parked car. Is anyone else hurt?”

“No, I don’t think so. But I don’t know what happened to the driver. He has vanished.”

“You’re from the hotel, right?”

“Yes Mr. Smith, I remember you from check-in. I am so sorry about the issue with your credit card, I should not have kept you waiting for so long.”

Smith was surprised that she remembered him and even more surprised that she remembered his name, he sometimes had trouble remembering which name he was using and it still sounded foreign to hear someone call him Mr. Smith. He couldn’t believe she was still worried about the credit card machine, even after being in a crash.

“How could you be worried about that right now? You were in a bus crash. Seriously, it’s no big deal.”

“Sorry Mr. Smith, but I’m just a trainee and I can be sacked at any time without notice, and I think my manager has a vendetta against me. I’m so worried that I will lose my job and my little girl Khethiwe needs me. I’m so grateful that you didn’t report me to my manager.”

“But I don’t understand. Why would I report you to the manager? You did a fine job, you just had some trouble with that silly machine. It could happen to anyone.”

By now a police car had arrived. Officer Tumboyote, carrying a swagger stick and a pot belly, asked, “Is anyone killed? Don’t move the bodies. What happened here? Who are the drivers? You, white man, are you involved in this?”

Before Smith could speak, Thumi stepped up and said to the police officer, “I am an eye-witness, I was standing in the front of the bus next to the driver because all the seats were full. He was over-speeding and lost control and slammed into a parked car. He has now disappeared, he probably doesn’t even have a driving license, or maybe he was drunk. He was probably an illegal from Zimbabwe.”

Smith was a little baffled by this story but when his eyes met Thumi’s she winked slyly. He decided to follow her lead.

“Where you also on the bus, white man?” Officer Tumboyote asked him.

“No sir, I’m just a passer-by, I was walking along the sidewalk over there. She’s right, the bus just suddenly slammed into that parked car. I have no idea what the driver was thinking. But he has now run away, I saw him running off in that direction,” he said, pointing down the hill in the direction of the beach.

After asking a few other passengers, who mostly hadn’t seen anything, but confirmed that the driver had disappeared in the direction of the beach, Officer Tumboyote squeezed his girth into his car and took off toward the beach with his siren wailing, looking for the missing driver. Passengers had started leaving the scene, catching taxi rides or walking slowly down the street carrying their belongings to wait for another bus.

“Thumi, I don’t know what to say about that. I guess you were trying to protect me from the police?” Smith asked.

“Yes, if they thought you were to blame for this they would have arrested you for causing the accident. It was just an accident, you shouldn’t be punished. No one was killed. The bus driver must be guilty of something or he wouldn’t have run off. There’s no reason to stay here, you should go back to the hotel.”

“What about you? How will you get home? You mentioned that you have a daughter, you should be home with her.”

“No, I’m fine, I’ll take another bus. There’s another one due in an hour, but maybe the bus company will send a replacement. Khethiwe will be asleep by the time I get home anyway. It’s okay.”

“No, that’s not right. I feel responsible for what happened. Plus I owe you for helping me out with the police. Let me pay for a taxi for you. It’s the least I can do.”

“No, Mr. Smith, please. I can’t accept that. I stay very far from here, in Durban South, the taxi will be very expensive.”

“No Thumi, please, I insist. I’m not interested in arguing with you. Besides, you should have that cut on your head looked at, it might need stitches. You need to get home be with your family. It’s getting dark and I don’t feel right about you waiting out here in the cold wind for another bus that may not even come.”

She finally relented, realizing his mind was made up and there was nothing she could say to change it, and the thought of spending time with Khethiwe before she went to bed made her happy. He asked her to negotiate the rate so the taxi driver wouldn’t take advantage of his foreignness to hike up the price, and then he handed her enough rand to cover the fare.

“Are you working tomorrow?” he asked. “Will I see you at the hotel?”

“Yes, I’m working from 8am to 6pm tomorrow. I must be there. I have no option.”

“Okay, go home and get some rest. I will see you tomorrow. If there’s anything I can do to help with your manager, I’m more than willing. Maybe I can explain what happened and ask him to give you some time off to see a doctor and make sure you don’t have a concussion or something.”

“No please don’t mention any of this to my manager. He wouldn’t understand and he would think I’m asking for special treatment. He would probably be suspicious of why a guest is speaking on my behalf. He would accuse me of having an improper relationship with a guest and I would be fired instantly. You don’t understand how Mr. Laurent thinks.”

“Ok then, I won’t say anything to him, but he sounds like an asshole. But if there’s anything else I can do, please let me know. Good night.” He suddenly remembered her book, which he had been holding for her while she held the scarf to her wound. “Oh wait, don’t forget your book! What do you think of it? I have just started reading it.”

“Oh it’s fantastic. I have read all her books and I love them. She’s my favorite author, I have all of her books and it is my dream to one day become a famous writer like her.”

“I’ve only read the first chapter, but I love the main character, she’s fantastic. You should follow your dream, if writing is your passion you will make it, I’m sure.”

“Oh thank you for the encouragement, but it’s hard to pay the bills and feed my daughter as a writer.”

“Well good luck,” he said, “don’t give up on your dreams. Good night. Be well.”

“Good night Mr. Smith, and thank you again for being so kind with the taxi.”

Back at the hotel Smith found himself shaken by the near-fatal bus accident. He decided to have a hot bath to relax. He prepared a cup of hot rooibos tea, pulled out the Nigerian novel and settled into the hot water, grateful to be alive.

The next morning he went down to the hotel dining room at 7:45 for breakfast. The buffet was a scene from a glutton’s dream, with pancakes, waffles, an omelet station, bacon, ham, sausages, muffins, croissants and pastries, plates of cheese and cold meat and bowls heaped with fruits.  There was even a halal section with chicken sausages and lamb chops. He prepared a small bowl of granola with yoghurt and took a banana and a glass of mango juice and found a seat in the busy dining area. He was trying to keep his weight in check, and exercised his strongest willpower by eating a light breakfast despite the temptation to load his plate with greasy sausage and eggs.

After his quick breakfast he glanced at his watch. 8:15. Thumi should be at work by now. He walked up to the front desk and saw a pretty South Asian woman behind the counter. Her name badge read “Pooja.”

“Hi, can you tell me if Thumi is working today?”

“Is there a problem? I’m happy to assist you,” said Pooja.

“No, no problem at all, I just wanted to speak with Thumi for a moment if she’s available. I can check later.”

“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t seen her today. I can ask Laurent, the hotel manager, he will know her schedule.”

“No thanks, that’s okay, it’s not important, no need to disturb the manager.”

He went back to his room, wondering what had become of Thumi. Maybe her injury had been more serious than they had thought? Maybe she had decided to go to the doctor after all. Having her help would make his job easier, but he had some backup options if she fell through.

At 10am he went back to the hotel lobby. A glance over at the front desk confirmed that Thumi still wasn’t at work. He walked out into the street and wandered down to the beach along Durban’s wide smooth streets and took a long walk, admiring the numerous expensive cars driving around on this sunny Sunday morning. There was a lot of wealth on display in this town. It was almost noon when he came back to his room. He found a plastic bag with two books in it and a note on the desk of his room.

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for being so kind with the taxi and for not being upset with me for taking too long to process your credit card. Please accept these books by Enwelumoku Okonkwo as tokens of my friendship and appreciation. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I do.

Regretfully, I was sacked from the hotel this morning by my manager Laurent. When he audited yesterday’s transactions and saw the voided credit card entries he was furious with me and told me he would no longer accept my mistakes.

 My friend Annie in Housekeeping has agreed to place these books in your room for me. I will be hitting the tarmac today searching for a new job, but I have faith in God that I will find one soon. Maybe this is just God’s way of telling me to pursue my dreams of becoming a writer.

 Your friend,

 Thumi

Damn it, he thought. There goes Plan A. He picked up the phone and called the front desk. Pooja answered.

“Reception, may I help you?”

“Yes Pooja, how are you?  “This is Mr. Smith in room 531.”

“I am fine, Mr. Smith. How may I help you?”

“Yes, I am supposed to be meeting someone at this hotel. Unfortunately I don’t have his name, but I was told that he is a very tall and dark Rwandan man, about 50 years old, with gray hair and glasses. Do you know anyone staying here who matches that description?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not allowed to divulge information about guests, it’s a violation of hotel privacy rules.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that. Sorry to trouble you, I will just wait and see if he contacts me. But in the meanwhile it would be a huge help if you could just let me know if you’ve seen anyone in this hotel matching that description, without violating your privacy policy, of course.”

“Yes sir. Well, I can confirm that I have seen someone that matches the description you provided, but he is not a hotel guest. I’m sorry but that’s all the information I am able to offer, anything else would get me in serious trouble with my manager.”

“Thank you so much, Pooja, you have been enormously helpful. I will make sure no one knows about this, especially your manager. Do you enjoy wine? I will have a bottle sent to you as a token of my appreciation. I have a friend who owns an excellent vineyard in Stellenbosch.”

“Thank you sir, I’m happy I was able to assist you. A bottle of wine would be fantastic, thank you so much. Will there be anything else I can help you with today?”

“No, not right now, thank you so much and have a very lovely day.”

“Thank you sir, you have a nice day as well.”

So Augustin Bwagamoyo might be here in the hotel after all. Fantastic. The first part of Plan B went smoothly enough. But he’s not here as a guest. What does that mean?

He picked up the phone and dialed 5 for housekeeping.

“Hello, housekeeping,” the woman on the line answered.

“Yes, is Annie available? This is Mr. Smith in room 531.”

“Yes, this is Annie. Hello Mr. Smith, did you find the package and the note I left for you from Thumi?”

“I did, thank you so much for placing it in my room. I am very sorry to hear that Thumi has lost her job, she did not deserve that and I shall have a word with the manager about this.”

“No, Mr. Smith, please don’t mention this to Mr. Laurent, it will only cause problems. If he knows I passed a note to you I will be fired as well, and he can blacklist Thumi with the hotel association and make it impossible for her to ever work in the hotel industry in Durban.”

“Okay then, I won’t say anything to him. Who is this Laurent anyway, that name sounds French. He’s not African?”

“No, Mr. Smith, he is African, but he is from one of the French-speaking countries, but I don’t know which one.”

“Shame,” he said, “not enough jobs in South Africa as it is, I don’t understand why the hotel would give a job to a foreigner.”

“Yes, Mr. Smith,” said Annie. “It is a real problem. I must be going now, is there anything I can help you with?”

“No Annie, I just wanted to thank you for passing along Thumi’s note. Please send her my regards and my thanks, and my best wishes that she finds another job quickly.”

“I will do that, sir. She is my neighbor, so I will pass your greetings to her this very evening after work.”

Hmm, a Francophone African working as the hotel manager. Could this Laurent be Bwagamoyo?

After hanging up the phone he began formulating his plan. His first challenge was to get a positive identification of Bwagamoyo. He took out his hidden camera from his bag and wore it under his jacket. It had a very tiny lens disguised as a jacket button that recorded high definition audio and video at close range. It was perfect for what he had in mind.

He went down to the hotel restaurant and ordered a large and expensive lunch. The food was outstanding, he had no reason to complain, but he called over the waiter and began rudely berating him that the soup was cold.

“Listen man, this soup is not even warm, it’s still frozen in the center. How can you serve something like this? This is an outrage. I can’t believe I paid 150 rand for frozen food.”

“I’m so sorry, sir, please allow me to heat it for you.” The poor waiter was just a kid, Smith felt sorry for him and hoped it wouldn’t cause him problems, but he needed to create a confrontation in order for his plan to work.

“No, don’t even bring it back, just take it away. Get it out of my sight, it’s making me nauseous! And you get out of my sight, too! This is outrageous! I demand to speak with the manager!”

He was putting on a good show of being an ugly American.

“Yes sir, I will call the manager to come right away. Thank you sir.”

The poor waiter was scared half to death. He would probably be fired for this, but if Smith was right, Bwagamoyo/Laurent wouldn’t be around to terrorize his employees much longer.

After a couple of minutes a tall and dark impeccably dressed African man approached his table. Smith secretly clicked on the record button for his hidden camera as the man approached his table.

“Hello sir, I am Laurent Sindiyo, the hotel manager. I understand the food has been less than satisfactory?” he said, as he approached and shook Smith’s hand.

Smith leaned in close, much closer than he normally felt comfortable when talking to someone, but he wanted a clear image in the camera. He adopted a quiet, conspiratorial tone.

“Yes, Mr. Sindiyo, I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to make a scene, but I’m afraid the soup was not even adequately cooked, much less warmed. It was still frozen in the center. I did not expect to pay this much for a frozen dinner. That waiter just didn’t seem to understand what the problem was.”

“I’m terribly sorry Mr….”

“Smith, my name is Smith, I’m staying in room 531.”

“Yes, I’m terribly sorry Mr. Smith,” said Sindiyo with only the slightest hint of a French accent. “Of course you will not be charged for your meal. I will have a word with the chef and we will make sure this does not happen again. May I offer you a drink voucher for the bar to compensate for your inconvenience?”

“Well that would be lovely, thank you. Again, I’m sorry about the disruption, but you know how it is, you expect a certain level of service at a place like this.”

“We do strive for excellence, Mr. Smith, and I appreciate your bringing this matter to our attention. I will personally make sure that the problem is rectified.”

He was charming and smooth, the very picture of a good hotel manager, ingratiating to the paying guests no matter how boorish their behavior.

Back in his room, Smith uploaded the video to his laptop and sent it via an encoded email back to the analysts in Langley. He needed a positive ID. He had been tracking Bwagamoyo for five years and he wasn’t about to let him slip away again.  Confirmation came within an hour. Facial recognition software and speech pattern analysis made the job relatively easy with the high quality video he had provided. The message was terse and unambiguous: “Positive identification, subject identified as General Augustin Bwagamoyo with 97.37% probability. Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

He was elated. After all the years of chasing a ghost halfway around the world he had finally caught up to Bwagamoyo here in Durban of all places, and he had actually shaken his hand and been within inches of the man earlier today. Bwagamoyo was a smooth operator but he had seemed completely clueless as to the real identify of “Mr. Smith.”

***

Security at the hotel was laughably amateurish. They simply weren’t prepared for someone with Smith’s skillset. A bottle of Stellenbosch wine and a $100 bill had charmed Pooja into providing him with a cloned electronic door master key. Sleeping with her had been an added bonus, but it had also guaranteed that she would never talk, as he had shown her the secretly recorded sextape and made it clear that it would go online if she ever said a word. With the master key it was simple to slip into the security room and shut off the hotel security cameras. For good measure he erased all the backup tapes since his arrival, leaving no video record of his presence in the hotel.

Once the surveillance cameras were off he went straight to Laurent’s suite on the top floor. The arrogant bastard had taken the penthouse suite as his own residence, which Smith had learned from Annie, who cleaned the room.

He knocked on the door, and noted Laurent’s look of surprise and possibly a hint of fear.

“Mr. Smith, is there a problem? Are you aware of the time?”

“Yes, General Augustin Bwagamoyo, I am well aware of the time, and unfortunately for you, time is not on your side. ”

The look of shock on Laurent’s face upon hearing his real name was all the confirmation Smith needed that he had found his man. He removed his right hand from his jacket pocket and pointed the silenced Beretta at Laurent’s forehead.

“Please have a seat,” Smith said, motioning to the chair. “Don’t bother to scream, no one will hear you. I have disabled your security system and given the watchman the night off.”

Laurent was shaking. He began to sob, holding his head in his hands.

“Oh knock it off, Bwagamoyo. We’re both professionals. You knew this day was coming,” said Smith.

“Look, you have two choices. Choice A, you can go out like a man. I leave a .38 revolver unloaded on the nightstand and you will find exactly one bullet on the bathroom sink. You will get into the bathtub so as to minimize the mess that your poor housekeeper will have to clean up, then you will load that single bullet and pull the trigger, taking your own life. You will, of course, sign this detailed suicide letter that outlines your war crimes and reveals your true identity as the indicted Hutu genocidaire, General Augustin Francois Bwagamoyo. I will be waiting outside and when I return after hearing the gunshot you will be dead, and if you are not I will kill you.”

Bwagamoyo had stopped sobbing and was listening intently to Smith, looking for an alternative option that would let him live.

“Or, choice B,” Smith continued, “is when you don’t cooperate and I am forced to shoot you in the head and arrange the scene to appear to be a suicide and forge your signature to the same suicide note. Frankly, Choice B is a lot more work for me, so I’d be a lot happier if you’d just shoot yourself and get this over with.”

“You are forgetting Choice C,” said Bwagamoyo.

“Am I?”

“Yes, in which I make you an extremely wealthy man and you walk away from here and forget that you ever saw me,” said Bwagamoyo.

“I’m listening. Do tell. I find this choice very intriguing,” said Smith.

“I have one million US dollars in my safe, it’s all yours if you walk away.”

As a trained interrogator, Smith was certain that Bwagamoyo wasn’t lying. He noted how his eyes had darted to the opposite wall involuntarily as he mentioned the safe.

“Would that be part of the millions of dollars you embezzled from selling arms to the Congolese militias, who then raped and murdered millions of innocent people?

“Really, Mr. Smith, does it matter how I came to be in possession of these funds? All that matters is that you will leave here a very wealthy man and I will continue to live peacefully here in Durban in retirement. Can’t we let bygones by bygones?”

“Oh is that what you’re doing here? Retirement? Enjoying the good life? Five million dead in Congo and you want to let bygones be bygones? Sorry Bwagamoyo, I’m tired of listening to you talk.”

Smith dropped the revolver on the nightstand and went into the bathroom and placed a single round of ammunition on the edge of the sink, then he left the room without another word. Five minutes later he heard the muffled crack of the shot.

Bwagamoyo had probably thought it was clever to hide the safe behind an innocuous looking framed photo of a mountainous green landscape, but Smith recognized it immediately as Mt. Karisimbi, Rwanda’s most famous mountain, and home to their most valuable national treasure, the mountain gorilla. He realized immediately that it was hiding Bwagamoyo’s personal treasure. Safe cracking was one of his many acquired skills. It took him just seconds to open the safe and remove the money inside. The only thing Bwagamoyo had lied about was how much money he had, it was well over five million dollars.

Reclining his seat in business class on the Air France jet, Smith unfolded the day’s issue of the Mail & Guardian. The front page featured a picture of Augustin Bwagamoyo under the headline “Notorious Rwandan War Criminal Dead in Durban Hotel of Apparent Suicide.” He smiled, reclined the seat and slept peacefully.

When Thumi came home she was surprised to find a package and an envelope on her doorstep. She opened the envelope, which contained a short note:

Dear Thumi,

Please accept a small token of friendship from a friend and fellow fan of African literature. I hope this encourages you to follow your dreams. I have a feeling that if you inquire at the Hotel Metropolitain you will have no trouble finding employment. I have put in a good reference for you with the new manager, Pooja. Best wishes and good luck.

Your friend,

Mr. Smith

Inside the package was a rare signed first edition of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

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