SATURDAY, 22 DECEMBER 2007
The sun is at the vertical, and shade is as scarce as charity on Biashara Street. Where it exists—in shop fronts and alleyways, like cave mouths and canyons—life clings: eyes blink, and patiently they watch.
They see a man and a boy walking along the sidewalk, the boy turning every third or fourth step into a skip to match his companion’s rangy stride.
The man, in concession, has stooped slightly to maintain a conversational height. Their posture suggests that if either reached out a hand, the other would grasp it, but for their own reasons, neither will offer. They are father and son.
—But where would you ride it? the father asks wearily. It’s evidently a long-running conversation.
—Anywhere! says the boy. I could go to the shops for you.
—Adam, this is Nairobi. You go out on your own on a bike, you’re going to get killed. Have you seen the drivers here?
—Then around the compound. Grandma’s house. It’s safe there. Michael’s got a bike. And Imani, too, and she’s only seven.
The tall man pauses in his stride, and the boy runs into the back of his legs. Something has disturbed the man: immediate, palpable, yet indefinable. The sense of trouble about to strike.
Just for once, thinks Mollel, just for once
, I’d like to turn off this instinct. Be able to enjoy going shopping, enjoy spending time with my son. Be a member of the public instead of a policeman.
But he can’t. He is what he is.
—That’s the one I want! says Adam, pointing at the shopwindow.
Mollel is vaguely aware of a display of bicycles inside, but he is watching a reflection suspended in the glass: a group of teenage girls, all gossip and gum, mobile phones wafting like fans, handbags slung over shoulders like bandoliers, and from the shadows, other eyes—hungry now—emerging. Watching without watching, getting closer without moving in, the men nonchalant yet purposeful, disparate yet unified, circling their prey. Hunting dogs.
—Go inside the shop, Mollel tells Adam. Stay there till I come back for you.
—Can I choose a bike, Dad? Really?
—Just stay there, says Mollel, and he pushes the boy through the store’s open door. He turns. It’s happened already. The group of men are melting away, the girls still oblivious to what has just taken place. He clocks one of the guys walking swiftly from the scene, stuffing a gold vinyl clutch bag—so not his style
—under his shirt.
Mollel takes off, matching the hunting dog’s pace but keeping his distance, eager not to spook him. No point in letting him bolt into a backstreet now. Pace up a beat, narrow the gap. Quit Biashara Street. Cross Muindi Mbingu. Weave through traffic—ignore the car horns. Busier here.
The hunting dog is in his late teens or early twenties, judges Mollel. Athletic. His shirt has the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, not to expose his well-developed arms, but to ease its removal. The buttons at the front will be fake, Mollel knows, replaced with a strip of Velcro or snaps to confound any attempt to grab the bag snatcher’s collar, leaving the pursuer holding nothing more than a raggedy shirt, like a slipped snakeskin.
While Mollel weighs his strategy—a dive to the legs rather than a clutch at the torso—he realizes that the thief is heading for the City Market. Got to close the gap now. Lose him in there, he’s gone for good.
Taking up an entire city block, with more ways in and out than a hyrax burrow, on a day like this the market’s dark interior is thronged with shoppers escaping the sun. Mollel considers yelling Stop, mwizi!
—but calculates that this would lose him precious time. The thief leaps up the steps and deftly vaults a pile of fish guts, pauses a moment to look back—showing, Mollel thinks, signs of tiring—and dives into the dark interior. Mollel’s gaunt frame is just a few seconds behind, his heart pounding as he gulps lungfuls of air even as his stomach rebels at the powerful reek of fish. He hasn’t done this for a while. And he is enjoying it.
It takes his eyes a moment to adjust. At first, all he can see are tall windows high overhead, shafts of light like columns. Noise fills in what eyes cannot see: the hubbub of negotiation and exchange, the squawking of chickens, the multitudinous laughter and chatter and singing and hustle and bustle of life.
And among that hustle and bustle—a bustle, a hustle that should not be there. He sees it now as well as hears it, just a few stalls ahead. Figures tumbling, voices raised in protest. His quarry.
Through a gap in the crowd he sees the thief. He’s scattering people and produce behind him in an attempt to obstruct his pursuer. No point going down that aisle. Mollel looks left and right, plumps for right, rounds a stall, and starts to run down a parallel row. Although he’s keeping up with his prey, he’s not going to catch him this way. Ahead, he sees sacks of millet stacked loosely against one of the stalls. It’s his chance. He bounds up, one, two, and is atop the stall, balancing on the boards that bound the millet.
A howl of protest rises from the woman behind the stall as she swipes at his legs with her scoop. —Get down from there!
But he is already gone, leaping to the next stall, hoping the rickety wood will take his weight—it does—and run, leap, again—it does.
A better view from here, and a clearer run despite the efforts of stallholders to push him, grab him, drag him to earth. He rises above the hands, above the stalls, intent only on the pursuit.
The fresh, clean smell of peppers and onions cuts through the dusty dryness of millet. Easier to negotiate. Mollel bounds across the stacked vegetables, skipping, skimming, recalling chasing goats across mountain scree when he was a child. Momentum is everything. Each footstep expects you to fall. Cheat it. Be gone.
Outraged yells fill his ears, but he feels that the great hall has fallen silent. There is no one in it but him and the fleeing man. Distance between them measured in heartbeats: arm’s reach; finger’s grasp.
And then the thief is out the door.
Mollel suddenly finds himself standing on the final stall, surrounded by furious faces. They barrack him and block him; hands reach for his ankles. He sees the back of the thief’s head about to melt into the crowd outside the market. He sweeps his arm down, feels hair and hardness—coconuts—beneath his feet. Another goat-herding trick: if the animal is out of reach, throw something at it.
The coconut is out of his hand before he even thinks about it. It describes a shallow parabola over the heads of the stallholders, through the square, bright doorway. He even hears the crack, and he relaxes. He has time now to produce his card and clear the way to the doorway, where a circle has formed.
The crowd is now eager, anticipatory. The rear doorway of the City Market is inhabited by butchers’ stalls, and the metallic smell of blood is in the air.
The people part before him, and Mollel steps into the ring. The thief is on his knees, dazed, gold handbag dropped to the ground, one hand rubbing the back of his head. The smashed coconut has already been snatched by a pair of children in front of the circle who suck on the sweet flesh and grin at Mollel. Free food and a floor show. What more could you want?
—You’re coming with me, says Mollel. The thief does not respond. But he staggers groggily to his feet.
—I said, says Mollel, you’re coming with me. He steps forward and takes the thief by his upper arm. It is wider than Mollel can grasp and as hard as rock. He hopes the guy’s going to remain concussed long enough to drag him downtown. If only he had cuffs—
—and then the arm wheels away from his, Mollel just having time to step back to take a little force out of the blow that lands on the side of his head. No concussion—the faintness feigned—the thief now alert and springing on his heels. A lunge—missed—at Mollel. The crowd cheers. He is strong but top-heavy, this fighter, and the policeman judges that a swift shoulder ram would push him once more to the ground. Mollel seizes his chance, head down, body thrown at his opponent’s chest, but he misjudges the timing, and the thief parries him easily. Mollel feels a sharp, agonizing pain in his head—everywhere—stabbing and yanking, the pain of capture, and of submission.
His opponent laughs, and a roar of approval comes from the crowd. No partisans, these. Mollel feels his head jerked from side to side, up and down. There is nothing he can do.
—I have you now, Maasai. The thief laughs.
He has put his thumbs through Mollel’s earlobes.
* * *
The bane of his life, those earlobes. Long and looped, the flesh stretched since childhood to fall below his jawline, the i-maroro
are a mark of pride and warriorhood within Maasai circles, but an object of ridicule and prejudice elsewhere. He knows many Maasai who have had the loops removed, but somehow the stumps sing of regret to him, and their ears seem just as conspicuous as his own.
One advantage, though: no one is going to grab them by the ears. The bystanders are convulsed in near-hysterical laughter; he can expect no help from that quarter. They have never seen a policeman led by his ears, like a bull with a ring through his nose. Even the thief, his face now leering at arm’s length, seems hardly able to believe his luck.
—All right, so this is what we’re going to do, Maasai, he says. We’re going to walk together, slowly, out onto K Street. I’m not going to rip your pretty ears off. And you’re not going to come after me. If you’ve got it, nod your head. Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t, can you? Would you like me to nod it for you? Yeah, that’s right!
Quite a comedian, this one, thinks Mollel as his head is tugged up and down. The thief enjoys the audience. He even swaggers somewhat as he holds the policeman captive—glancing at the crowd, relishing his moment of fame. Let him, thinks Mollel. Means he won’t be ready for what I’m about to do.
What he does—brutally, swiftly—evinces a sympathetic groan from all the men in the watching crowd. They have no illusions about what a size-ten police-issue steel-capped boot can achieve when brought into such intimate contact with its target.
Almost tenderly, the thief lets go of Mollel’s ears. His eyes look into the policeman’s with a look of heartbreak and agony. This time, Mollel knows he’ll have no problems bringing him in.
Copyright © 2013 by Richard Crompton
Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist, lives in Nairobi, Kenya, with his wife and their three young children. Hour of the Red God is his first novel.