Find the earring.
Gillian Ackerman scanned the pavilion, the now-empty dance floor . She wasn't coming home without both earrings, not from Zanzibar. The diamonds were beautiful, yes; expensive, no doubt. But mainly they were her father’s gift, in honor of her college graduation. Her father, who could not imagine any white person wanting to see this place. Poor Dad, and Mom too.
As she’d grown older, she realized how frightened they were—no, terrified—of anything or anyone different, and how their little fieldstone house in a little Michigan town was their haven from whatever lay “out there.” But how can you hide from everything? Why would you want to?
Gillian was six when she first heard the name Zanzibar. She'd long forgotten the rest of that day, but she would remember that moment forever.
It must've been a Saturday. Trotting beside her father at the mall, her eyes fell on a photograph in an art gallery: a strange-looking boat, floating in a blue harbor. They painted swimming pools this color, but she'd never seen a swimming pool like this, where the water matched the sky and little waves shimmered around the boat. Her father began dragging her along, but she begged, “Where is that?”
“Oh, somewhere far away,” her father said, still pulling. “No, where?” she insisted. A man in the gallery entrance heard her. “Zanzibar,” he called after her. “It’s an island called Zanzibar.” He was a black man with long hair that hung in thick black ropes down his back, and his voice sounded strange and lilting. “He’s from Africa,” her mother had explained, in a tone suggesting she was rude to ask.
Zanzibar—it didn’t sound real, not the way the man said it. But it was real. One day at the library she found a book about Zanzibar, with more pictures of that blue water and the boats, called dhows. Her curiosity growing, she found another book about Zanzibar, the story of a princess—a real princess, not the silly fairy tale ones who lay around dead until a prince kissed them. No, Princess Salme lived in a palace called Beit-al-Mtoni with tame peacocks and flamingos, with 35 brothers and sisters.
Gillian’s curiosity turned into a plan. She would see Zanzibar and Beit-al-Mtoni, smell the cloves in the marketplace. She put a dollar in a jar and hid it in the closet. When she filled that jar she started another. By the time her mother found out, Gillian had accumulated three jars and two hundred dollars. And that resulted in a trip to the bank and the opening of her first savings account. She told her mother and the bank teller, "I'm going to Zanzibar."
Her mother had just said, “You’re a good saver, Gillian,”
And at twenty-two, she announced she’d bought a plane ticket to Mombasa. Her mother had actually burst into tears; her father had begged her to at least find somebody to go with. But no friends or relatives had saved their money the way she had. And her parents flatly refused to go, maybe hoping that would force her to give up the idea. But the ticket was non-refundable, she reminded them.
"So you're out a few bucks..." her mother had begun.
"Mother, I've bought the ticket and booked a hotel. It's a very nice hotel with good security. I've planned this trip my whole life. I am going." Her father had gone to the kitchen and poured himself a stiff drink. Her mother had finally stopped crying, and told her not to talk to the natives, to keep her purse in sight at all times, to keep her bedroom door locked, and for heaven's sake not to drink the water...
The Welcome Aboard party lasted till midnight; after a traditional Tanzanian feast, a young man named Ahmed danced with her, or tried to, anyway. In his broken English, Ahmed told her he was going home to Zanzibar to work as a tour guide, raising money to pay his tuition at Cairo University. Then she found herself with Yevgeni, a nineteen year-old Russian boy. His mother beamed at them, but his father just shook his head as Yevgeni tromped on her foot for the third time.
Then the ship’s second officer stepped before her. Kazim Amiri could dance, really dance. If he’d been white, her mother would be making happy calculations, but he wasn’t. As Kazim swirled her around the third time, she decided racism wasn’t just unethical, it was stupid.
The clock by her bed read 1:30 when she got to her cabin. She took off one diamond earring, reached for the other. But she felt only her earlobe.
Now she stood on the deserted deck in the moonlight. It couldn’t have gone overboard, she reassured herself; a short wall separated the deck from the empty space over the ocean. Men were talking on the deck below, but from the shadows a tiny spark caught her eye. Heaving a small sigh of relief, her hand closed over the earring.
“No,” said a voice. Its anger caught her attention. “These are not the stones you showed me. And the Kimberly certificates—a child could see they’re forged. I cannot sell these.”
“You promised one hundred thousand.” The other voice spoke low.
“They are nothing like what you showed me the first time. The quality—the quality is perhaps industry grade. I sell gems, not tips for drill bits.” Someone stood. “The deal is off.”
She heard a strange coughing noise; something heavy struck the ground. The second voice spoke. “Over the side with it.”
Somebody was gasping. “Pah. It is a good thing he needs only to fall. Hard enough just to tip this great ox.” She heard a great splash far below, as if a playing dolphin had leaped out of the water and back again.
Gillian sat on the floor, fingers clutching the earring until the post stabbed her palm, the pain breaking through the fog. She scrambled to her feet. She had to tell somebody, fast.
Tearing off her high heeled shoes, she tore across the deck. The steps were steep and unlit; she tripped, sprawling headfirst into the arms of a surprised sailor. “Somebody’s fallen overboard!” He didn’t understand the words, but he heard the urgency in her voice. He called out, “Kazim! Kazim!”
Officer Amiri came out of the door to the banquet room. “Miss Ackerman, what is it?” he asked.
“Somebody’s overboard!” she repeated.
Amiri immediately pulled out a walkie-talkie and spoke into it; she felt the ship slow. Amiri turned to her again. “Show me where he was.”
“I was standing on the deck above, but it was this side.” She pointed.
Again he spoke into the walkie-talkie. “How do you know he fell in, if you did not see him?” She felt the ship turning.
“Somebody—pushed him in.”
Amiri raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear an argument?”
She nodded. “They spoke in English.”
A shout came from somewhere, answered by voices and running feet. “They’ve found something. Come with me.” He led her to an office. His radio squawked something, and he replied briefly before he turned back to her. “They pulled someone out.” His voice became crisp. “He was shot.”
“I suspected. It sounded like a silencer.”
“You know what a silencer sounds like?”
“Movies,” she shrugged.
“Ah, Hollywood.” He became businesslike again. “I must take a report from you.” He stood as the door opened. “This is Captain al-Rahbi. I must translate, for he does not speak English.” He reached for a tape recorder as he sat down.
Sometimes he would interrupt her with a question, but most of the time he simply translated for al-Rahbi. It took her twenty minutes to tell the full story. Finally she asked, “What’s a Kimberly certificate?”
Amiri explained. “I think you overheard a conversation between a buyer and a seller of rough diamonds. The seller likely represents a war lord selling gems to finance his little revolution. This has been a problem in Africa, and the diamond industry is trying to stop it by the Kimberly Process. Each shipment of rough diamonds entering a country must be a in a tamper-proof container with its own serial number on a government certificate. The countries that are parties to the Kimberly agreement may not buy from countries that are not. But anyone can carry a little box from one country to another. Of course, it’s not so simple to forge a Kimberly certificate, but all things can be done for a price.” He smiled grimly.
“Is Tanzania a Kimberly member?”
“Yes,” he answered firmly. “But we have two types of diamond mining here, one by large companies, and the other informal mining, which is some fellow digging about until he finds one. All too easy to slip something in.”
“And pretend the diamonds came from a legitimate source.”
He nodded. “We will reach port in an hour. You must repeat your story to the police. Thank you, Miss Ackerman.” He stood.
He was dismissing her? “What about the guy who shot him? Will he come after me?”
“Why should he? He knows nothing of you.”
But two murderers were on this ship, and they knew their crime had not gone unnoticed. She hurried back to her cabin. What to do? What to do?
She put her suitcase in front of the door, and lay on top of the bed, listening to the sounds of footsteps—bell boys, officers, passengers. Two murderers were on this ship. Two murderers.…
Back in the office, Kazim sank back into the chair while the other man gazed at the shut door silently. Then he said softly and in English, “You play a dangerous game, Kazim.”
Kazim nodded. “That which is worthwhile is always dangerous. One must simply keep one’s eyes open.”
“Well then, best keep your eyes open. Of course,” he chuckled, “that should not be too hard in this case.”
Kazim did not laugh. “Why did you pretend you couldn’t speak English?”
“She talked, you listened. And I watched. Miss Ackerman has told you everything she knows, I’m certain. She seems an honest sort of girl.”
Another man entered. In Arabic he asked, “May I have my office back now? We are nearing port—soon I must be on the bridge.”
Both men stood. “Certainly, Captain al-Rahbi.”
Gillian stood at the railing, trying to take it in. Zanzibar! This was Zanzibar! The dock bustled with activity, just as she imagined. Fishermen hauled out their catches. Vendors hawked T-shirts and souvenirs. Well, some things stayed the same the world over. And—here came the police.
She wished they hadn’t said her name for all to hear. The fact that five policemen surrounded her and led her off the ship clearly announced: Here is the witness for the prosecution. Her name is Gillian Ackerman. She is blonde and 5 feet 4 inches tall with hazel eyes. Please make a note of it.
At the police station, she repeated her story. The police chief, a bony little man with no hair at all on his head, wrote everything down, then asked her where she would be staying. “The Palace Hotel,” she answered, and he was nice enough to send her there in the back of a local squad car. The only witness against you, the aforementioned Gillian Ackerman, is staying at the Palace Hotel. Hope this helps.
The first day she stayed in her room, a chair wedged against the door. She’d planned to spend the day at the bazaar, but now she peeked through the thick curtains onto the street. An elderly Arab man tended a little café across the road; children swarmed it for ice cream and soda, while the older people sat with cold drinks under the awnings. No tourists came here; it seemed strictly for the locals. Tubby little women sat and gossiped while children ran shrieking; men drank tea and smoked in the shade of a lean-to.
Nobody looked like a criminal. Nobody wore a black cape or twirled a long mustache. Turning away from the window, she sat down on the bed. She’d spent a lifetime planning this trip to Zanzibar. Now she hid in her room, just like her parents would’ve done.
Around suppertime she ventured down to the lobby and bought a postcard for her Mom and Dad, a picture of the ruins of el-Mtoni. She had planned to take a walk, but now—Gillian Ackerman will now walk alone in the cool evening dusk. Don’t miss this golden opportunity!
The second morning she received a call from the desk clerk. A visitor waited for her in the lobby.
She felt her heart pounding as she came down the stairs, but she relaxed when she saw Officer Amiri. Smiling, he bowed slightly. “Miss Ackerman.”
“Hello, Officer Amiri.” She matched his formal tone. “I thought the ship went back to Mombasa.”
“It did. I’m on leave for a week.”
“Oh.” Her pulse quickened again, and her mother’s disapproving face seemed to float before her.
“The desk clerk tells me you stayed in your room yesterday. It is not necessary. It is all but certain the scoundrels have gone back to Mombasa.” She looked to the desk clerk, who suddenly seemed very busy with a lot of papers.
She said, “I don’t know who they are, but they know who I am. They must have seen me get off the ship surrounded by cops.”
He shrugged. “They know you didn’t see them. Otherwise they’d be under arrest already.” He held up his hand as she started to speak. “You’ve had a terrible introduction to Zanzibar. You told me the other night you wanted to see Mtoni. So I came to make a suggestion. A large tour group is leaving this afternoon from another hotel. I twisted a few arms,” his eyes suddenly twinkled a little, “so they’ll take you along if you wish.”
Gillian asked, “Are you coming?”
“Oh, no, Miss Ackerman. My family would never approve.” He grinned suddenly, his teeth very white against his dark skin. “Besides, what would your own parents think?”
She felt her face go hot.
“I thought so. Well, the bus leaves in about an hour. It’ll be a tour, then dinner right in the ruins with traditional dancing—a full evening. The hotel itself is only a five minute walk from here, but I’m sure you’ll want to get ready. Make sure you bring sunscreen.” And he turned and went out the front door, into the blinding African sun.
She arrived at the bus to see that Amiri’s large tour group consisted of five elderly couples, plus Ahmed. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am your guide. My tips pay tuition at Cairo University. If you think I am good guide, please tip. If you think I am bad guide, please tip more, or I am bad guide forever.”
Gillian laughed, her first good laugh in a while. This idea of somebody out there watching her and plotting murder like a bad episode of Law and Order—ludicrous! Kazim was right. She needed to calm down. This was Zanzibar!
He watched her from the cafe. Likely she wouldn't recognize him, dressed as he was in the local jellabiya and cap, but he stayed half-hidden behind one of the umbrellas, watching as she climbed aboard the bus. As it lumbered away, he stood and dropped a few shillings on the table.
Time to move.
Beit el-Mtoni. The Palace by the Stream. A thousand people had lived here once, surrounded by lush gardens of orange and mango trees. Now the doorways and windows of Mtoni gaped jagged and empty, the metal roof rusted in some places and gone in others.
Gillian could hardly believe she was finally here, standing where the Princess Salme had once played with her many brothers and sisters. Ahmed droned about the restoration now underway to restore Mtoni to its former beauty. She secretly liked it the way it was.
The musicians had begun setting up in the courtyard, and the old people were looking critically at the refreshments a they sipped coffee. From where she stood Gillian could see the ocean, the sun sinking toward the horizon. She didn’t feel hungry yet; she wanted to see the palace again. Wandering through the ancient corridors, she found herself by the Persian bath, the one reserved for the exclusive use of the Sultan and his principal wife. She gazed down into the stone pit, now half-filled with earth and stones, once a luxurious bathtub smelling of roses and musk. What must it have been like, she wondered, sharing a husband with so many other women?
A footstep sounded behind her.
She spun around, but saw only Ahmed. "Oh! Ahmed, you scared me."
His jaw tightened. “You should not have wandered off.”
" I'm here all the way from the States. I've waited my whole life to see this place. Probably I'll never see it again." She looked around her longingly. "I have to give it a good going-over." She pulled out a digital camera. "And of course I have to take a ton of pictures."
He did not smile. “The palace—is falling apart in many places.” Now he sounded just plain nervous. Was he worried about being seen with a woman in a lonely place like this? Arab culture and all that.
Well, she’d let him know he didn't have to be here. “I’m sticking to the safe areas. Don't worry about it. Go back to the other tourists.”
He stepped closer. “The ground here is uneven, and the steps are crumbling. You could trip. You need only to fall, and you could hit your head.” Whatever scared him, it wasn't wagging tongues. She felt frightened too, all of a sudden. Something in what he said, but why should she be afraid of tripping?
It dawned on her that they were alone. And Ahmed seemed to be getting up his nerve for something. And she remembered the voice from the ship. He needs only to fall…You need only to fall…
Two murderers. Here was one. Ahmed had been the man who tipped the body into the ocean. Sure Kazim, the bad guys went back to Mombasa.
"You didn't mind doing this before," she blurted. "Why lose your nerve now?"
"I don't hold with killing women," he said between his teeth. "It is for cowards."
"So don't do it," she suggested.
"I must." She involuntarily stepped backwards as he reached for her.
She became conscious of another presence. Ahmed’s expression changed instantly, back into the friendly college guy.
Kazim stood there, wearing the local jellabiya and cap, smiling cherubically.
Ahmed spoke first. “Why, I know you. You were on the ship. What are you doing in the ruins this evening?”
Without a word, Kazim's fist struck him on the jaw, with such force that Ahmed tumbled to the ground without a word. Gillian watched him fall, then raised her eyes to him. Kazim returned her gaze without speaking. Finally she stuttered, “He speaks perfect English. He just pretended he couldn’t. He was going to kill me.” Then she stopped. Ahmed hadn't gone back to Mombasa. Was Kazim Ahmed's boss, coming to make sure his hired gun didn't get all chivalrous at the last minute? She tried to remember the other voice that night, but it had spoken in a whisper.
Kazim asked, “You recognized him?"
“I don’t know. Who are you?”
She winced as he reached into the robe's pocket, but he pulled out only a badge. “Tanzanian police.”
Kazim was a cop? She finally nodded toward Ahmed, still lying senseless at her feet. “He threw the man overboard.”
“Leaving his boss still unknown. Well, Ahmed will yet show the way.”
“Did you know who he was?”
“Not in the least. It was I who told the local police to raise a fuss over you. I needed you to make the murderer come out to play. But when you hid in your hotel, it sort of spoiled things. That's why I sent you off on a tour. I'm sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry? He nearly killed me! I'd like to bounce a rock off your head!”
He looked hurt.
“You told me they went back to Mombasa and I was safe, perfectly safe!”
“The boss likely has, and you were. You are. I was telling the truth. I only needed to catch one. Now that I have the servant, I’ll catch the master.”
Ahmed moaned as he came round, and Kazim leaned over him. “You’re under arrest,” he told Ahmed.
“For what? I’ve done nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Do you consider murder to be nothing?”
“I am no murderer.”
“Come, come. The diamonds.”
“I never killed him. He did. He told me to get rid of it. I had to. He is—he would hang me for his crimes.”
“Who is he?”
Some force made Ahmed jerk backwards, hands clawing the thick grass. As she stared at the spreading pool of red at her feet, she found Kazim’s hands on her waist, lifting her off the ground. And she was hurtling down, down into the bath. “Stay there!” he hissed.
Ahmed, the tour guide—he wasn’t a tour guide, he was a murderer—but he wasn’t. He tried to kill her—he didn’t want to. Was he dead? Truly? Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he'd be all right, if he could get to a doctor.
She started to stand.
Something clipped the stone, and she dropped to her knees as the gray dust rained down. Where was Kazim?
She heard a footstep. She craned her neck to the darkening sky. Captain el-Rahbi stood above her, holding a pistol and looking concerned.
“Miss Ackerman, are you all right?”
“You speak English?” she said stupidly.
“I pretended ignorance the other night. My name is Mahmud Nasser. I’m with the Tanzanian police, same as Amiri. Kazim made his mistake today, shooting poor Ahmed before I could stop him. No doubt the diamonds will be found in his possession.”
No. Not Kazim. She scrambled out of the bath.
Nasser continued, “We’ve had our eye on Kazim for a while. He's our man, I know that now.”
That made no sense. “Kazim’s arms were crossed when he talked to Ahmed. How could he shoot him?”
“Miss Ackerman, he uncrossed his arms long enough to shoot. You were upset. You weren’t paying attention.”
In the corner of her eye fluttered something white, but she ignored it. “I know your voice. That's why you wouldn't speak. You were the one who killed that man, and made Ahmed drop him over the side. If those diamonds get found on Kazim, it’s because you put them there.”
His smile told her she was right. She felt waves of relief wash over her. Stupid, since he had a gun pointed at her chest. “How unfortunate," he sighed.
A hand came out of nowhere, twisting Nasser's hand until it dropped the gun, but Nasser had already brought up his left fist, cracking Kazim square in the nose. Kazim grunted, staggering back; Nasser dived for the gun. But Gillian had already dropped to the ground, covering it with her body. Nasser kicked her cruelly in the side, forcing her sideways. Ribs screaming in protest, she grabbed for it as she rolled away, off the edge and into the stone bath. Her finger squeezed the trigger as her body struck the ground; the bullet went skyward, taking a chunk of Nasser's ear with it. He yelled something in Arabic.
She forced herself to her feet, drawing a bead on Nasser, TV cop style.
Kazim's voice. "Gillian, put down the gun."
"Are you sure?"
"In the name of all that's holy, yes! I'm standing right behind him!" She laid the gun by his feet, heart thumping painfully. A quick motion; Nasser's hands disappeared behind him. “Are you all right?" He sounded slightly out of breath. He picked it up by its barrel and put it in his pocket. Kazim shook his head as he pulled out his cell phone.
Gillian looked about her, around the ruins of Beit el-Mtoni, then at Ahmed. “I wanted to see this place.” She suddenly felt tears rising. "Ahmed. He shot him."
Kazim looked at her dubiously. "Yes. Why weep for him? He tried to kill you."
"Just--it's such an awful thing to do to somebody."
"Yes, it is. That's why I don't feel much pity for him." He pressed the send button on his phone and said something in Arabic, then turned to her. “Go sit in the courtyard.”
“I don't want dinner and bongo drums,” she snapped.
“Go anyway," he said sharply.
"I think I broke a rib."
"Does it hurt to breathe?
"No. It just hurts."
He touched her side. "Likely just bruised."
His hand felt warm, and Gillian suddenly realized she was blushing. Kazim cleared his throat. "They should be here soon."
"The police. Who else?" He held out his hand, pulled her to her feet.
"Oh." She kept her hand in his, and Kazim seemed in no hurry to release her, until he noticed Nasser, rolling his eyes. Embarassed, he let go of her hand, saying briskly, “Go now.” He waved suddenly, and Gillian turned to see two uniformed officers coming toward them.
She ate nothing, barely heard the drums as she looked out to sea. She watched the rest of the tour group, hating them as they sat there fat, dumb and happy.
Back at the hotel, Gillian went to her room. She left open the heavy outer curtains, letting in the blue light of the full moon. The pain in her side had subsided to a dull ache. But when she closed her eyes she saw Ahmed, bleeding in the grass, or Nasser, clutching his ear. She turned on the bedside lamp, read and reread the brochures on her side table. She gazed at a picture of Stone Town…
The morning sun streamed through the sheer outer curtains, with the bedside lamp shining weakly. Slowly she stood, made her way to the shower. The hot water felt good on her face. She put on a flower print Indian skirt and pale cotton top, put her hair into a loose bun. Would they still have coffee in the lobby?
Yes, the coffee urn was there. And so was Kazim, mug in hand, chatting with the desk clerk. “Miss Ackerman,” he said with that slight bow of his.
“Officer Amiri,” she nodded coolly. “What brings you here this morning?”
“I wondered if you’d like to see the town.”
“If you've got more crooks to catch, I'm going back to my room.”
He smiled. “I have a few days off. I thought you might like to see the House of Wonders.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What would your relatives think?”
He shrugged. “My family’s not that fussy, to tell the truth, and they’re in Dar-es-Salaam anyway. What about your family?”
“They're in Michigan. Let’s leave it at that.”
He extended his arm. “To the House of Wonders then, Gillian?”
She slid her arm through his. “Take me to the House of Wonders, Kazim.”
© Copyright 2016 Helena Parris. All rights reserved.