The small house has been turned into a café-bar. The walls are painted a loud blue. An artist has drawn a fat man holding a woman by the waist in front of bottles of beer. Behind, a huge yellow packet of condoms seems to be watching over them.
Isaro is listening as a man talks to her in the shade of the terrace. She sports a ruby red halter with thin straps and a faded pair of blue jeans which hug her hips. Her body is a human magnet, and all the men in the bar know it. And like a piece of metal, the now-smiling face before her can’t seem to get enough of her. About every five seconds, he touches her: shoulders, cheeks, arms.
As soon as she sees us, she breaks away and calls to us. She seems very excited, she is gesticulating. On her face, you can see fresh makeup which gives her a pale complexion. But beneath the heavy cosmetics are a few dark patches like skin disease. I think she still regrets the day I saw it.
We sit down inside the bar and start to drink the beers and whiskey she has served us. But she does not stay with us. She goes over to a small group of uniforms, sits in one of the men’s lap. This officer has lost some teeth and as he smiles, what is left of his grey dentition stands out like uneven pegs; they attest to a man who indulges in a lot of tobacco.
“Do you think she will deliver?” asks Essien, his eyes on Isaro.
“I hope she does. For all our sakes.” I quietly survey the rest of the patrons in the bar. Besides the men of the Ugandan Police Force, there doesn’t seem to be any other potential obstacle. More than half of the civilians are up to their noses with alcohol. As for the few others, they either must be cautious of exceeding their drinking capabilities, or are more interested in the live football match being broadcast via the caged television mounted high up in the wall.
Underneath our table, Essien’s legs are now shaking. He grips his mug of beer. Sweat breaks over his forehead.
“What is it?”
He doesn’t speak. He looks at me like a child afraid of the dark.
I take his mug away, my stare fierce and uncompromising.
“Achanga should have been our last,” he blurts. His big hands ball into tight fists. “We shouldn’t do this, Cheru.”
The team in green has scored. The men watching give shouts of joy. One of them in particular is delirious. Beer bottle in one hand, half-smoked cigarette stuck between the fingers of the other, he rises, gives a poor excuse for a belly dance. Everyone laughs, especially the waitresses.
I don’t like the fact that one of the uniforms is now looking at Essien. Hoping to draw the attention away from him, I rise, raise my beer bottle. “Next round’s on me!”
More uproarious shouts rock the tiny space. The men closest to our table leave their chairs to clink glasses with us. Isaro gets up. Although the rotten-toothed officer seems reluctant to let her go, he eventually does after she whispers something into his ear. Isaro walks past me, like we haven’t even met, and disappears into the adjoining room behind us. A little bit later a waitress makes a mess of the floor; her tray slips, mugs and bottles shatter with reckless abandon—perfect timing.
I pretend to be of assistance in cleaning up, and together we join Isaro in the room. It’s empty, except for the stacked shelf of drinks. The girl leaves.
“Do you have it?”
“As it’s meant to be?”
Isaro nods expectantly.
I open the rectangular crate behind her. Remove the top layer holding a set of mugs. Two AK-47 assault rifles lie like new-born twins. I pick one up, inspect it, its loaded chamber. I do the same for the other weapon. I look out the louvered window. The rest of our friends are already in position, waiting. I check my watch: 3:30 p.m. Twenty more minutes before we hit gold.
“Not one call from you.”
I know where this is going.
“No more visiting—like before.”
“But I’m here now.”
“You know what I mean.” Isaro closes the gap between us, presses her soft body against mine. Her full, kiss-me lips are inviting. I catch the lingering smell of cigarettes and booze on her.
“Ever since that evening, you’re avoiding me.”
I pull my head back, feigning surprise. “Avoiding you?”
I am about to voice the first lie that jumps into my head but she draws back, frowns. She crosses her arms over her bosom. “Tell me, what is your excuse this time? Work? Your clean-clean job in the police station make you the number one busy man in this town?” Isaro gives me a sad, painful stare. And that pain creeps into her voice now: “You think I have it. Isaro have disease. Your ‘African Queen’ no good no more for you, heh? That’s why you care no more what I do.”
Someone calls out to her, asking for the special drinks she promised.
I should feel remorse for my abrupt and unexpressed withdrawal. I should feel it squeeze my heart. Isaro and I go way back, we used to be so close. Yet I don’t feel anything—even a whit. I am too psyched for what lies ahead instead.
Isaro moves over to the shelf, retrieves a small bottle from her jean pocket. She stoops and pours the clear colourless liquid content into a small barrel of fresh local brew. It’s not hard to figure why she is doing so, whom the drink is intended for. This should render the policemen docile, and even though I think she has overdosed the liquor, I don’t say it.
“I still love you, you know.”
“Go tell that to your Momma.” With that, she leaves from whence she came, carrying the barrel. Before the door closes, I catch a glimpse of her as she is absorbed again by the drinking party in the bar.
My watch says 3:45 p.m. I cock my rifle. As soon as I exit the room, I throw the other rifle at Essien who catches it expertly. It makes me wonder but briefly if he has been able to shake off his fears. Shock, and then horror registers on the faces that turn our way. The policemen, it appears, are now under the influence of Isaro’s potion; they all look at us, slit-eyed, too weak to pull their guns on us. We take their weapons. Essien takes the men into the other room to shackle them while I advise everyone else to remain calm and be sensible.
An orange armoured truck soon comes into view. It is brought to a loud abrupt halt by our friends who throw a line stacked with nails under its tyres. I appear along with them, each of us brandishing his gun.
Mid-way towards the truck, Essien come out of the café-bar, frantically waving his cellphone.
“Cheru!” he screams. “It’s a trap! Isaro set us up!”
I was beginning to think he was putting up another of his silly shows when I hear gunshot from inside the bar. He goes back in, returns fire.
Someone inside the truck opens fire, peppers one of our friends with a burst, almost cutting him in half. The rest of us take cover behind the things closest to us—stacks of wood, used tyres, poles. As the others return fire, and the men and women in the bar scamper and flee in all directions, I’m more worried about Essien’s safety than mine. I dash into the bar, hoping to lend support to Essien.
Essien is badly wounded, soaked in his own blood. He manages to shoot. A spray of bullets from the other end of the room shatter the framed picture over our heads, bore more neat holes in the turned-over tables around us.
Some paces ahead, I can see three of the policemen whom I thought were drugged. They are already dead, lying in careless positions—on the floor, on an undraped table, and beside a chair—like strewn clothes, blood oozing from the bullet holes in their bodies, their guns not far away. But how could this be? Where they actually drugged in the first place? Isaro!
Essien is now staring at me, but his pupils are no longer responsive, his eyelids aren’t blinking. On his face, it seems, is that I-told-you-so look and as more of his blood ooze onto floor, I can see a bit of my reflection.
The uniform with Isaro is telling me to surrender. Outside, there is still the ack-ack sounds of machine guns and rifles as they spit out their dangerous babies.
Sirens. And more sirens wailing.
Blinded by rage and a crushing feeling of defeat, I rise, defying common sense, the growing possibility of catching a bullet. The officer, the rotten-toothed guy, is the last uniform in the bar still breathing and as I draw closer, screaming profanities, emptying what is left of my magazine, he shoots as well. A bullet rips into his shoulder, and then his chest, and he crashes into the wall behind him.
Seeing this, Isaro dashes into the other room, and tries to lock the door, but not before I force myself in. She is afraid, she is speaking incoherently.
From a public address system outside, we are informed that the café-bar has now been surrounded. The one speaking wants me to surrender, offering a kind sentence should I hand over Isaro and myself willingly.
Isaro’s hand are up, appealing. “Please, please my sweet Cheru.”
Sweet Cheru? “Why!”
Isaro jumps, her back crashes against the shelf. She begins to confess, “You’re right. I—I sick. See, I need money. The money—no, no not this one. I, em …” A tear streaks down her cheek. She stifles a sob.
Isaro expresses her fears of abandonment again, her fears that once I pull through with the heist, I will leave her and the town for good. That it will break her heart to see me no more. She tells me the officer I just killed swore to take care of her, to give her the life she’d dreamed of. But now she can see the futility of tipping off the police.
I drop the gun. But as I try to move toward her, I feel a keen pain in my side. I look down.
Blood. My blood.
I rebel against the pain anyway.
“Please,” Isaro begs, as my hands circle her neck. “Please don’t …” Her hands come up to my wrists, trying to break free as I tighten my grip. “Please, don’t this. Please.” She’s now finding it hard to breathe.
“I loved you.”
She gurgles, as though she’s struggling under water. “Essien. His child.” More gurgles. Salvia dribbles down a side of her lips. “In my belly.”
Essien? My brother … with Isaro? I’m torn between a fresh anger and shock. And then I refuse to believe the words I just heard. “Liar! You’ve always been a liar!”
I feel twice betrayed.
Isaro’s tongue flicks about in her gaping mouth, the white of her eyes flashing, her resistance waning. I feel it, the life seeping out of her. It makes me feel like a god. An angry deity delivering judgement.
I am not sure whether that is the crack of a gun, or someone bursting in through the door behind me.
My vengeful grip slackens like a stone on free fall.
Nothing makes sense now.
Edited by: Darlene Jones