Danson Ngigi sat in his car and watched revellers walk into and out of the bar he was parked outside of. It was dark – almost midnight – and without the security lights of the establishment he doubted anyone could see their hand in front of their face. The night air was frigid. The cold cut through the open car window and straight into his chest not caring that he had on a thick woolen sweater or that he had his AC on. Danson did not mind it though. He let the heat from his cigarette warm him from the inside as he blew billows of smoke and steam out the open window.
He finished his cigarette and wound up the window. He turned on the radio and settled on a station playing songs from the 90s. His favorite era of music. He reclined his seat, just enough to relax and keep an eye on the bar door at the same time. It wouldn’t be long before someone needed a taxi.
He did not wait long before two people emerged into the night. A couple by the looks of it. The man was a burly specimen. He was two heads taller than the lady and almost twice as wide. He had on the uniform of a police officer and the lady was in a very short dress. She must be freezing, Danson thought. He reclined himself lower and feigned sleep as the couple walked by his car and into another waiting taxi. He didn’t do couples. Couples were complicated.
Soon, a lone stranger walked out. This one was a man similar in height and build to Danson. He had on a light colored shirt, half untucked, and a pair of work pants. He looked like a teller at a bank. A drunk one. He had a coat slung over his shoulder and he was staggering towards Danson’s car while looking at his phone. Danson flashed his lights at him and pulled up his chair at the same time. Winding down his window, he called to the stranger, “Niaje? Unataka cab?”
The stranger looked at him and slurred out, “Zii. I’ve already made a request.”
Without missing a beat, Danson responded, “Hizo za request hazifanyi saa hii, boss. Na hii lockdown, it’s just us freelancers tumebaki.”
The stranger looked at him intensely for a minute as he teetered from the left to the right, trying to keep his balance. Danson could smell the alcohol on his breath from where he sat. He hoped the stranger would accept a ride from him. He was tired of waiting and he was already thinking of the routes to avoid because of the cops on the road.
“Sawa,” the man finally said. “As long as nifike, I don’t have a problem.”
“Utafika, boss. Don’t worry,” Danson said. He got out of the car and stood shoulder to shoulder with the stranger. “My name is Dan. Let me get the door for you.”
The stranger’s name was Leon. He was 34 and worked as a teacher at a boys’ high school not far from where the bar was. The school was closed because of the pandemic so he had to supplement his income and now sells (or tries to sell) insurance to anyone who would let him. He offered to sell some to Danson but the driver wouldn’t have it.
“Are you sure?” Leon asked, sitting up so that his face was next to Danson’s ear. “I can give you a good rate.”
Danson smiled and said, “I’m already covered but I’ll look for you once it expires.”
Leon sat back in his seat. “That’s what people say when they want to say no but don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”
Danson let out a laugh. “Alright. I promise you that I will in fact look for you when I reconsider my insurance provider.”
Leon raised a fist and said, “Awesome.”
They drove in silence for a while. Leon slipped in and out of sleep a few times as Danson calculated the best routes for this trip. He pulled into a petrol station to pause and think. “Is it okay if I refuel?” he asked, startling Leon from his shallow slumber. “You’re my last ride and I want to wake up with a full tank in the morning.”
“It’s cool, Dan.”
“Wazi.” Danson gave instructions to the pump operator and waited. If he stuck to the main road, he might be pulled over by the traffic police. They might ruin his plans and force him to deviate from his schedule. If he stayed on the byroads, he would avoid them but Leon would get suspicious and contact someone (if he hadn’t already). He decided he would rather deal with the cops, perhaps pay them something small to allow him to pass. He didn’t mind – he had the money. He sent out a quick text before starting up the car again and paying for the fuel. “Alright, here we go,” Danson said. He pulled out of the station and headed west. Once the station was far enough away from them, he turned up the heat from the AC and placed a small block of smelling salts in one of the air vents. About five minutes after that, Leon told him to stop the car.
“I don’t feel too good, man,” he said.
Danson pulled up to the side of the road and unlocked the door for Leon. He walked out and threw up behind the car. The smell was horrible. Danson took out the smelling salt block and threw it out. He walked to where Leon was bent over and placed a hand on his back. “Are you okay?” Danson asked.
Leon shook his head.
“Let me get you some water. You can rinse out your mouth,” Danson said. He went back in the car and took out a water bottle from his glove box and offered it to Leon.
“Thank you,” he said and he chugged it all down.
“Better?” Danson asked.
“Much,” Leon said. “Thanks, Dan.”
“No problem. Let’s get you home.”
By the time Danson did get Leon to his place, it was just past midnight and the man was out cold. He slept in the back of the car curled up like a baby with his suit jacket folded up as his pillow. Danson had already relieved him of wallet and his phone which he spun in his now gloved hand. He tossed the items out of the window and spent five extra minutes in front of Leon’s gate before pulling away from the area with the man still in the back.
It was 1:38 am when Danson parked behind the building that housed the La Bel restaurant. He was on the loading dock, ironically behind a meat truck. The light above the door to the restaurant’s store flicked on and Patrick walked out. He was dressed in black pants and a red polo shirt so tight it was like he was stuffed in it. Lucky he’s in shape because otherwise… Danson thought. He got out of the car and waited for Patrick to make his way to him.
“You’re late,” Patrick said.
Danson shrugged. “Traffic was horrible,” he said.
Both men laughed and Patrick offered up a hug. “Good to see you, brother,” he said.
“You too, man,” Danson said.
“How’s the family?”
Danson lit a cigarette. “We’re surviving. The girls had just started school before this lockdown business. Emma’s already fed up with working from home and taking care of us all. But you know her, she’s a trooper.” He drew on the cigarette and blew out the smoke in Patrick’s face. The other man did not appreciate that gesture. Danson smiled at him and said, “How are you? Still single?”
“Work keeps me busy. No time to meet people,” Patrick said.
“Speaking of work…”
Danson pointed a thumb behind him. “In the back.”
Patrick went round the car and peeped in the back window. “Nice.”
“How’d you knock him out?”
“The usual. Strong sedatives.”
Patrick sighed. “I keep giving you the white stuff and you keep not using it. Shida yako ni gani?”
“I don’t like the witchy stuff. I’m a man of science.” Danson said and blew out an even bigger plume of smoke.
“Whatever. When you’re finished destroying your lungs,could you give me a hand?”
“I’ll have you know, old friend, that I’m down to only half a pack a day.”
“Sure you are.” Patrick said.
“It’s the truth. I’m cutting back. You know, for the kids.” Danson tossed the cigarette but on the ground and stuffed it out with his shoe.
La Bel was one of the few buildings in the town with an actual basement. The restaurant used this basement space as a storage facility for meat and produce and canned goods. Inside the meat locker – a refrigerated container that contained rows of beef, mutton and veal cuts hung from hooks on the ceiling, and a section of frozen poultry and fish – there was a hidden door. This door opened into a secret basement under the official one. It was a cavern that was accessible via a spiral staircase lined with ancient sconces on the walls. The walls themselves were bare rock hewn into a passable path. At the bottom of the staircase, the place opened up to a room 48 feet long, 24 feet wide and 12 feet high. At the very back of the room was an empty space lined with metal lockers on the walls, 18 on each side of the staircase. In the middle of this section sat a large perfectly round ceramic tub. It was empty at at moment. After the lockers were seats on either side of the room – spaced out so that each row held six seats. There were three rows on each side.
At the front of the room, there was a dais upon which a large rectangular block of stone stood in the middle. Grooves were cut into this stone that ran into the ground. A small canal led away from the dais and down along the walls of the cavern.
Danson and Patrick stood on the dais where they had placed the body of the still unconscious Leon on the stone block. He was now stripped and lay only in his birthday suit. The two men washed his body with warm salty water. “This is the part I like the least,” Danson said. Excess water flowed into the grooves on the side and into the canals. After, they pat-dried the man.
When the cleaning was done, Patrick pinched a generous amount of that white powder into Leon’s mouth and nostrils before draping a large blanket over him. Danson, as always, just watched.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay for the ceremony?” Patrick asked.
Danson nodded. “I’m sure. I have to head home.”
“Alright. Your money is in the first locker.” Patrick said. “I put in something extra for you.”
“You’re too kind,” Danson said. He hugged his friend goodbye and left him on the altar prepping for the ceremony.
In the locker, Danson took out an envelope full of cash, a receipt for a bank transfer, and a box of the doughnuts from the restaurant that Patrick knew he liked. In one of the doughnut holes, he saw a small glass vial, corked and filled to the brim with the white stuff. He took it out and waved to Patrick from across the room.
“Nice try! I’m not going to need this!”
“Just take it and go!” Patrick said back.
Danson shook his head but put the vial in his pocket. He looked back at the shrouded figure on the altar and walked up the stairs leaving the scene behind till next time.
It was 4 am when Danson finally got home. He placed the box of doughnuts on the dining table with his car keys and headed into his bedroom. Emma was fast asleep, lightly snoring, a little drool sliding down the side of her mouth. Danson placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. He shed his clothes and walked into his bathroom to take a shower.
He slipped into his pajama pants and joined his wife on the bed. Emma felt his weight shift the bed and turned over, her back facing his front. Danson spooned his wife and shut his eyes to sleep.
“Who was it this time?” Emma whispered.
“Insurance salesman,” he whispered back.
“Oh. Sawa. Good night.”
“Good night, babe.”