The president sits down heavily. Last night was one of those nights. First there was a meeting with the Minister of Finance, who told him in no uncertain terms that the economy simply cannot tolerate these strikes. Yes, the minister agreed, their political power rests on the uneducated masses, and yes, they have to be kept happy. But, the minister said, the president must realise their reserves have dwindled into the red – the social grants, the handouts, the corruption…there isn’t any money to keep the navy afloat or the airforce in the air. And then there is the expense of keeping the army in the DRC and Sudan…not to mention the amounts needed to build houses for some people…
“My President, we are virtually bankrupt.” Those were his exact words.
Then he had to entertain the American ambassador. Something to do with fallen heroes. Now why would he, the president of South Africa, care about fallen American soldiers? Still, such events go with the territory, so he read the prepared speech, shook hands and made the right noises.
And then, when at last he got home, he had to find out that his wives have been quarrelling again. As if he needed that! So he laid down the law and had a restless night in one of the spare rooms, where he woke up to the sound of jack hammers pounding away at the site of the new swimming pool. That was one of the things the wives had an argument about: the one wanted an oval pool, the other a long, narrow pool to swim lengths in. And he, the president of a country, doesn’t care, They can have two pools, if it keeps them off his back. He doesn’t even swim, and they expect him to settle such matters? How stupid can they be? He’s running a country, dammit!
He’ll have to fire that Ngobeni. The man is getting too big for his boots. Thinks he can throw his weight about, does he? In the mood the president is in, it’ll be a pleasure to shout at somebody today. He presses the button on his desk to summons his aide.
“Get me Ngobeni. Immediately. And where’s my coffee?”
Beauty Mahlangu dresses with care. She wants to make an impression on the man she’s about to meet – a junior clerk of the American embassy, according to her handler in Washington. She’s sure it’s about the video she sent yesterday, and equally sure the meeting is about an appropriate reward for her sacrifice.
She meets the clerk in one of the coffee shops in Adderley street – a dark and dingy place with few customers. He’s not at all what she expected: his yellow teeth and pointed nose is already bad enough, but the receding chin makes it impossible not to describe him as ‘ratty’ or ‘rodent-like’. Middle-aged, balding and sinewy, his other awkward feature is his eyes: they’re unusually large, and seem to find it difficult to move in unison.
“Washington wants to thank you for your efforts, Miss Mahlangu.” Raft-face doesn’t waste time. “So they’ll pull a few strings to get you promoted in your job.”
“What? What?” She gasps her indignation. “You get me to deliver such a big fish on a silver platter, and the best the mighty US of A can do, is to get me promoted in my job? In a few month’s time? You must be completely daft!”
“Listen, you idiot! I had to degrade myself for this. I feel filthy! I work hard enough to earn my own promotion, thank you! Now go tell your bosses in Washington to try harder, otherwise I’ll never do anything for you again.”
“Miss Mahalangu, I don’t think you understand.” Rat-face manages to twist his face in a smile, exposing the yellowed teeth while his left eye wanders off south. “You see, there are two people in that video. Oh, sure, we’re interested in the man, and will put that video to good use. But may I remind you that your little sighs and moans are also there. And your rather shapely body. Then, when you walk towards the camera, the sheet so suggestively wrapped around your beautiful body, your face is quite clear. If that should happen to appear on Youtube, I’m sure your relatives and friends would want to see it.
“But there’s something else: do you really think you’ll survive a single day in the office once we’ve spoken to Jacob Ngobeni? He’ll want revenge, not so? So I’ve prepared a medical certificate for you. You’ll hand it in at the office as soon as you’re back. I regret to inform you that – according to one of the country’s foremost medical experts – you have a rare blood disorder. This requires a long and complicated treatment, and the doctor is not sure how long you’ll need to recover. So you’re on sick leave for an indefinite period of time.
“In the meantime, we sort old Jacob out. He’ll arrange a transfer for you to another department. Somewhere where we can put your prodigious talents to use again.
“I trust we understand each other?”
Beauty sits there for a long time after the man left. Yesterday she felt dirty. Today she knows: there isn’t enough soap in the world to clean her up. Ever again. Never.
The president holds out his hand.
Ngobeni looks desperately tired, but manages a grin.
“My President, I’ve had a hard night. The least you can do, is to welcome me to your office with a handshake and offer me coffee.” He watches the older man’s eyes bulge as the veins in his neck swell. “Now, now, President, don’t get upset. It’s really bad for your blood pressure.” He sits down with a flourish, keeping the laptop on his lap.
“Give. Me. The. Bloody. Computer!” The president is fuming, his words spat out in anger.
“Oh sit down, will you?” Ngobeni is enjoying himself. “Sure you can have the laptop.” He places it on the desk next to the president, “But…I’m afraid it is rather empty. Not much there. A few family photographs and e-mails to friends. Nothing incriminating.”
“But that computer was supposed to have the files we were looking for.” Despite his anger, his disappointment is obvious.
“Oh, they were there, alright. Quite extensive, they were too. I spent the whole night getting into them; they were protected by a password, you see. It took me hours and hours to figure out how to get into the file. You know what the password was? I’ll tell you: Voortrekker. How naïve! Once I tapped that in, I suddenly had access to the most amazing intelligence I had seen. You won’t believe how thorough that man was!”
By now the president takes short, sharp breaths as he holds up a hand. “Tell me you’re lying, you bastard.” He barely manages a whisper.
“Oh no, my President. This is no joke. I’m in charge of National Intelligence, and I plan to stay right where I am. Those files will cause an international outcry – despite our new laws prohibiting the publication of sensitive material. They might, for instance, fetch a tidy sum if I wanted to sell it to somebody, don’t you think? The Washington Post, maybe?
” Now, my President, my comrade, my brother, my friend…how about some coffee…?
Back in Rolbos, the townsfolk wave as the lorry of Kalahari Vervoer rumbles out of town.
“We’ll miss him,” Gertruida says as the cloud of dust obscures the vehicle. “Paul is nice man. He certainly livened up or lives.”
Boggel puts an arm around her waist. “I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that I am glad he’s gone. Too much excitement is bad for Rolbos. We tend to drink too much when they start shooting secret agents around here. No, I’d like it if we can have a few quiet days for a change – just like in the old days.”
When everybody lines up at the bar, Boggel fetches the Cactus Jack from the store room. He’s careful to leave a neat row of bottles in front of the laptop Paul has asked him to hide. Maybe, he thinks, everybody will forget about the little computer. Best if it stays right where it is for now. Sleeping dogs and all that…