A novel by
Alec Hunter is stuck on the tram lines in a career that has lost meaning. His life in London is heading a similar way, and holds a shrinking sense of adventure. A conversation about stolen emeralds lost in Lake Kariba, and sudden changes at work, propel him out of the nine-to-five routine, back to his childhood home in Africa. Alec’s search for the gems takes him to unexpected places, and into dangerous waters.
LAKE KARIBA, ZIMBABWE. JANUARY 2000.
A grim looking man with pock-marked face stood scanning the wide waters of Sibilobilo Lagoon, watching for possible approach of boats. There was nothing moving out there. He also watched the shores to see if there was any sign of human activity. He saw nothing to cause concern, but as he scanned the water again he noticed a single wave rolling away from him, fifty or sixty meters out in the lagoon. The wave was about twenty meters in length, and perhaps a foot high, with a peculiar green tint to it; he thought it unusual, but quickly lost interest.
He was stationed on the top deck of a houseboat, moored in a remote part of the lagoon. Nearby, at a wooden jetty, a thirty five foot vessel named Voyager was being worked on by a wiry fellow with a welding machine. Another man of expansive proportions watched the welder from the main deck; his eyes were fixed on him from the time he handed him a canvas bag containing emeralds, until the finishing touches were put on the weld, sealing the bag in a hidden compartment.
“The weather looks okay,” observed the large man, addressing the welder, and another stocky individual who loitered nearby. “Move out at dusk as planned, and get back before dawn.” He swatted irritably at a persistent mosquito. “Watch out for those Zambians,” he warned. “They have stepped up patrols on their side of the lake. Whatever happens, don’t let them get the boat.”
The two acknowledged, and a look of respect, or fear, was apparent in their eyes. They moved off to make final preparations for the journey.
The heavy man drained his beer bottle, then lumbered back into the bar-lounge of his houseboat. Whilst he opened another beer, his thoughts drifted to the profit he would make on this shipment, his largest to date. Assembling the cache of emeralds had taken time and cunning, and left a dead body in the process, but such was the nature of the business. The country had some of the finest gems in the world, and he had built up a profitable trade by acquiring uncut stones and selling them to buyers in Europe. It was a hazardous enterprise, but he relished the challenges. With the prevailing state of law and order in the country, evading the authorities posed no real difficulty.
Twilight began to set in, and he was surprised to hear a rumble of thunder coming from the east; he hoped it would not blow their way. During the next hour, he noted with concern that it grew progressively louder and closer. He wondered how far his shipment had gotten by this time, thinking moodily about the fierce storms that beset the lake. The thunder changed direction then, and he relaxed as the sound became increasingly faint.
After another beer, he had a large meal of beef stew and sadza brought to him. By now all trace of the sun had disappeared, and Voyager would be well on her way across the Kota Kota Narrows, probably already in foreign water. His men would exchange the boat for another at an agreed location near Zambian shores, and the transaction should take less than half an hour, then his men would have plenty of time to return before first light.
Presently, the large meal and beers took effect and he lurched to his cabin and collapsed onto a bunk which groaned under his weight. He was soon snoring loudly.
He arose some time after dawn, expecting to see the exchange boat moored safely nearby, but it was nowhere in sight. In a foul mood already because of the pounding in his head, he shielded his eyes from the glare on the water and barked at the pock-marked man who was observing the lagoon from the jetty: “Where are they? Any contact?”
“Nothing. I have tried getting them on the radio.”
“Then take the small boat through the islands,” he snapped, “and see if you can find them.”
Several hours later, he returned with nothing to report.
The heavy man narrowed his eyes and cursed angrily. He began to consider the possibility that he had lost a good boat, a couple of men, and a fortune in smuggled stones.
“Find out what happened to that boat!” he demanded. “Put some people on it, and keep them on it until you have results.”
LONDON. MARCH 2000.
The pub was filling quickly. A buzz of conversation was rising, punctuated every so often by bursts of laughter. The television, mounted up in one corner, showed England’s latest tangle with Zimbabwe on the cricket pitch. I was keeping one eye on the screen while Liam and I stood in our usual positions at the bar; England was making fairly short work of it.
“A bloke I deal with in Harare reckons things are fairly quiet in the city. The trouble’s out on the farms,” Liam said, distracting me from the game. “You’d think the whole country was in chaos when you see it on the news.”
I shook my head. “A mess, isn’t it?” I sipped my beer and swallowed slowly, thinking of the violence and murders that rocked the farming community in Zimbabwe.
“You’d think someone would move in to reinstate law and order.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Yeah? Like who?”
He shrugged. “South Africa maybe. Or one of the big boys from the northern hemisphere.”
“Not their problem.”
“They went thundering into Kuwait,” protested Liam.
“Oil,” I stated bluntly.
“No, it was the loss of life, and violation of human rights,” Liam countered. “Oil was incidental.”
“Sure,” I said cynically. “So what’s the magic number of lives lost before they do something? Only a handful gone so far. Still a heap to go if Sudan or Congo are anything to go by.”
“Steady on mate. It’s just another African country about to go bang. They all do it.”
I glared at him.
“What?” he asked, surprised at my touchy response.
“I lived there till I was sixteen,” I said.
Liam only responded with, “Oh.” He took a sip of his beer and asked, “Ever been back?”
I reflected morosely, then responded, “No.”
“Don’t know.” After all this time, I still hadn’t figured it out.
“Looks like you’ve missed your chance,” he muttered.
It hadn’t bothered me much since my arrival in England in 1983, but for some reason the idea of never returning to my birthplace began tugging at something painful in my chest. I had been in that group of young whites who had missed call up into the Rhodesian army by a few years, and had gone to secondary school with black Africans from 1980. To me, they were normal, and we integrated well as far as I could see. But many thought the outlook for the economy and higher education was not bright, so my folks decided to emigrate.
“That country has a lot of potential,” I said.
Liam coughed in surprise, and had to cover his mouth. He recovered, and asked, “What are you now? World’s biggest optimist?” He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. “The place will end up in a heap of rubble. And not long to go, by the look of it.”
“Nonsense. There’s still potential.”
“Look, Alec. My granny’s got potential to run the hundred meters in ten seconds. Just not likely, is it?”
“Things could turn around.”
“I suppose so,” Liam conceded, a twinkle in his eye. “She could take steroids.”
“Come on Liam. Change is possible.”
“Was, maybe. It’s all heading one way now.” A moment to reflect, then he complained: “It’s going to create problems. I get some of my best emeralds from there.”
“Yeah. They’ve got some pretty good gems.” Another swig of beer. “Things are getting hard enough with the corruption in their mining industry, and the increase in smuggling. They’ll catch Columbia soon the way they’re going.”
He nodded. “It’s rife.”
“How do they get the emeralds out?”
“On the magic carpet.”
I frowned at him.
Liam elaborated: “The magic carpet that carries fifty percent of all emeralds mined in Africa to Europe and the Far East, without the inconvenience of government duty and taxes.”
The barman set down a plate of eats near us, and I asked for another lager. Picking up a handful of crisps, I asked doubtfully, “Fifty percent?”
“That’s a conservative estimate.”
“How does this magic carpet work?”
“Well, it seems that would only be limited by the smuggler’s creativity. A Senegalese family took a different dead child home for burial three years running, before Zim officials became suspicious and inspected a small corpse. It was filled with emeralds.”
I frowned deeply and placed my drink back on the counter. “Come on, you’re not serious?”
He nodded wearily. “Some people will stop at nothing to satisfy their greed.”
“They also smuggle it across some lake into Zambia,” Liam continued.
“Mm. From Zambia it goes to Congo, on to north Africa, then disappears. Probably ends up in Geneva or Antwerp.”
“You know a lot about it.”
“I listen to the talk in my trade.” Liam was a jeweler. His glass was running dry, so he caught the bartender’s eye and signaled for replenishment.
“I heard something interesting,” Liam said, leaning in a bit closer. “A smuggler’s boat was making a crossing one night and got caught in a freak storm. Never reached the Zambian side.”
“And there were emeralds on board?” I asked.
“When was this?”
“Couple of months ago.”
“Did they recover them?”
“No. They’re still in the water.”
The hubbub around us rose in volume. “Hold on,” I said, cutting him off and leaning back for a better view of the cricket. Zimbabwe was appealing for a leg-before-wicket decision.
“What’s happening?” Liam asked, frowning and bleary eyed.
“LBW.” I took a good slug of my beer as the umpire held up a finger to dismiss the batsman. “Umpire needs specs, though. Look at that,” I said, pointing at the slow-mo replay on the screen. “He’s half way down the track. Can’t be out.” The general consensus in the pub held that the umpire would benefit from a visit to the optician.
They showed the decision again in super-slow-mo. “Of course he’s out,” Liam ruled. “Plum.”
I looked at him irritably. My loyalties between the two teams were divided, and it unsettled me. Another look at the screen. New batsman coming to the crease.
“As I was saying. They never found the gems.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Crew went down with the boat, and no one knows where it sank.”
“What were the alleged emeralds worth?” I asked, munching more crisps as I flicked a nervous glance at the screen.
He shrugged. “Enough to try crossing a dangerous lake at night.”
“Interesting story,” I said.
Liam made a reply, but I wasn’t listening. Zimbabwe had been hit for four, and I was busy sorting out my loyalties.