The Mbuji Juju by Gary Towner by Gary Towner - Read Online

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Summary

American Johnny Walker, an apparent African barfly, has an irreverent, caustic way about him. When he meets the naïve, sometimes comical Harlow, it is not under the best of circumstances. Harlow has narrowly escaped the clutches of the local police who have taken offence to the prospect of a feature exposé on them she plans to write for her daddy's newspaper. The corrupt and immoral cops have plans to throw her in a jail that makes bug infested Mexican hoosgows seem tame in comparison. Understandably, Harlow needs to leave town post-haste. She is drawn to Walker who has the only airplane that hasn't been overbooked. Walker finds Harlow's plight comical and he initially tells her to get lost. But when he is falsely accused of murder, he leaps out a second story window taking a very reluctant Harlow with him. He later consoles Harlow by telling her he will be flying south and she is welcome to accompany him. Though Harlow agrees, the two bicker continually. Walker makes her pay dearly for her decision by his unrelenting sexual innuendos. In the harrowing, life-threatening adventures to follow the two strike a shaky truce. But Harlow is mortified when Walker cons her into abetting him as he chases after an incredible illegal diamond stash in an old abandoned mine. Once inside, evidence of World War II Nazi delves into the occult, and modern day Nazi conspiracies, lead the two to believe the authoritarian historical accounts of how and when Hitler was killed will have to be re-written. Suddenly the whole mountain exploded. The problem now was, as the stalactites began to fall and the lava of an emerging volcano crept ever closer, how the dickens were they going to live long enough for Harlow to write about their findings, and maybe get a Pulitzer prize for the effort?
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611600971
List price: $3.99
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The Mbuji Juju - Gary Towner

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inspiration.

Chapter 1: Walker’s Joke

1975

Momma Mobusu’s Bar

Mbuji Mayi, Zaire, South Central Africa

In the movie Night After Night, a coat-check girl gushes, Goodness! What lovely diamonds! Whereupon Mae West snaps back her now-famous line: Goodness had nothing to do with it. The shiner inside the fish tank wasn’t the best in color, clarity, cut, and carat count, but it glittered enough to catch the eye even in the subdued light. It all but screamed for someone to reach in and take it home with them. But it wasn’t the only thing in the tank: there were a few pebbles, and a snake that would have left even the flippant Mae speechless.

Hisssssss! Ophiophagus hannah. Page twenty-nine of the African guidebook told all about what that sound meant.

The king cobra wasn’t indigenous to the Congo Basin, of course, but Momma had shipped it in from Egypt to serve as a feature attraction in her bar.

It hasn’t moved in ten minutes, said Harlow, the platinum blonde crouching in front of the tank. It just keeps making that noise. Do you think it’s asleep? Is that how they snore? She pressed her nose to the pane and shuddered as a thump on the glass made her jump back. Guess not, she said, her voice trembling. They had nothing even close to this back home in Iowa.

The big snake had left a vapor trail on the inside of the tank, where it had just tried to get at Harlow and the man standing beside her. Harlow glanced at him. Men. Every man I ever met had eyes like that snake has, she thought. Except Harry here; I thought he was different. But if he’s going through with this… Oh, what a jerk. He’s a fool, just like all the other men I’ve known. To think he’s all I got!

It wasn’t every day Momma Mobusu found somebody foolhardy enough to accept her challenge, was it? Everyone Harlow had spoken to confirmed that. Guess there’s one born every day, she decided. Even Daddy has his moments. Her father’s decision not to support her career had only served to make her stronger. She’d run that newspaper of his into the ground if it were the last thing she ever did. The old fart had never gotten over having no sons, and he swore Harlow didn’t have a prayer of inheriting his newspaper when he died. He was the biggest fool of them all.

And the fool next to her apparently had his mind made up. There was no talking him out of it. In Harlow’s eyes, Harry, the tall stranger with the unruly chestnut hair, was unreasonably cocky, even boisterous. Or at least he had been, until he stepped up to that tank and actually peered inside along with her. She thought she felt him shuddering even worse than she had. She prayed he’d give up on this dangerous contest.

Harry had a smelly cigar seemingly welded to his face. It chugged smoke endlessly and was reluctant to ever die out. He wore a dirty white shirt and well-worn khaki dungarees held up with fraying red criss-cross suspenders. Those red suspenders had Harlow’s curiosity piqued. Everyone else in the bar obviously preferred belts, she mused, so why draw attention by wearing suspenders? Dried mud caked his boots, like the boots of most men of the area who labored outdoors under the hot African sun, and his handsome features were weather-scored. As a struggling freelance reporter, she habitually noticed such things. Yet nobody could recall having seen the man before. He certainly wasn’t like the other losers she’d observed in the area; at least he took better care of himself. She had to leave town fast, and with all outbound airplane flights booked, who else was there to turn to?

Who would ever have guessed he’d attempt a stupid stunt like this? Why, she asked herself, had she ever given the man virtually every cent she had, in return for his promise?

He’d drive her to Botswana? It might have been smarter to pay him after he got her there. She wasn’t all that sure he even had a car. That diamond. Did he need money that bad? Diamonds were pretty, sure, but all she could think of now was the nightmare she had created for herself. Harry may not have been the best choice she’d ever made, but he had promised to take care of her. The consequences of staying in Mbuji were unthinkable. Once he had the diamond, would he finally keep his word to her and get her out? This stunt of his was so unreal.

It was getting noisy. That, too, came across as unreal to Harlow. Did everyone here want to see Harry die? That would make them no better than molting vultures. Even so, rowdies crowded around the man and egged him on, their animate urgings drawing even more spectators to gather by the droves. It was to be expected, Harlow supposed. This was going to be a contest between life and death. Who’d want to miss that? Yes, almost everybody agreed, it was an event worth going out of their way to see.

This man she only knew as Harry should have charged admission; he’d have made them both rich. But it wasn’t riches that had drawn Harlow to Harry, she reminded herself. It was only their business arrangement that concerned her now. What was the big hurry anyway? Harry could always come back and take up Momma’s challenge later. Who else would be so dumb? The diamond would still be there. She needed Harry’s help now, and to her the clock was ticking loudly.

It was all going to be so easy, Harry assured her. All he had to do was reach in and pluck out that four-hundred-carat rock. That was it: just reach into that poorly constructed fish-tank, and pluck out one crummy, albeit shiny, stone. He’d get to keep it afterward, of course. Nothing could be simpler. Or so he said.

The question is, Harlow countered in her mind, can he do it without that scary-looking king cobra waking up again? If he were to try, it would react in a most predictable fashion. Surely Harry knew he’d have to be plenty fast to avoid the consequences then.

Harry ignored her urgings and rolled up his sleeve, exposing a hairy tattooed arm that he held poised just above the tank rim. Massive streaks of sweat dribbled from his forehead and slid relentlessly down both cheeks on their way down into the tank. Sweat glued his shirt to his back. His breath now came noisily, in short bursts, his stogie tip burning a brighter crimson with each breath.

That overhead fan. Momma could at least have it running fast enough to stir up a breeze, he muttered, puffing eye-burning smoke into Harlow’s eyes with each word.

Don’t. Please don’t do it, Harry, Harlow pleaded, as she tugged at his shirt from behind.

Go fer it, sonny, an old-timer urged, then slapped Harry soundly on his back. It was enough to unnerve Harry, who glared over his shoulder before covering the old man’s face with one open palm, then shoving him back as hard as he could. The old man blinked, his arms pin wheeled, and he fell back into the crowd.

Silently, Harry went back to where he’d left off, first shoving Harlow and the returning old man to arm’s length behind him. The crowd surged forward to get a better look.

Sssssshush! Harry growled, motioning for the others to stifle their exuberance. You’ll wake up the damn thing.

I thought we had a deal, Harlow insisted. She reached out and again pulled Harry back, yanking him by his suspenders this time.

Get away from me. That rock’s as good as mine, Harry snarled. He spun around, swooped down and lifted the surprised Harlow off her feet and up onto the bar. You stay put, he said. I’ll be back in a minute, and we’ll finish discussing business then.

Men! Harlow complained, out loud this time. She glared at Harry’s back as he returned to the tank.

That slimy snake was going to wake up again, any minute—and there would go her one and only ticket out. Men can be so foolish at times, she thought. More often than not, in fact.

Harry touched the top of the tank with two trembling fingers. Then he carefully studied the serpent for any further movement. Look, it’s asleep. Sleeping like a baby on spiked Quaaludes, he whispered. He slowly withdrew from the tank and spit out his cigar, then reached for a beer and guzzled down most of it before imprudently throwing the bottle to the ground with a showy burst of noise and shards. The noise noticeably startled the snake, but only momentarily. A few seconds later Harry breathed a sigh of relief as the snake went comatose again. Was it all an act?

Harry breathed in one final long and labored breath. Suddenly, without another word, he stood up on his toes, plunged one hand in the tank, and curled his eager fingers around the diamond. A smile stretched the corners of his mouth as he whispered, I got you now…come out and see Papa.

The crowd, no longer able to restrain themselves, roared.

Harry snapped his head back and snarled his annoyance, resulting in a hush that instantly blanketed the room. The snake remained still. Everyone gasped in appreciation as Harry exhaled with a long shallow grunt, and began to bring his prize up for all to see.

This new movement finally caught the attention of the groggy cobra. It slowly lifted its head, and began darting its tongue in and out. Harry froze. Was it too late? The head, with its serpentine pea-eyes, swayed back and forth a few agonizing seconds, then dropped back down to rest on the bulk of the snake’s coil again. Harry was perplexed. It had been a long way from the bottom of that glass tank to the opening at the top. His hand began shaking uncontrollably as he dipped the stone back down toward the bottom of the tank to reassure the serpent nothing was amiss. He silently prayed the snake was just too sleepy to notice him.

Just a few inches to go. Just a few lousy inches more, Harry assured himself out loud. He slid the hand with the diamond sideways in a wide zigzag arc, just inches above the snake’s head, to test its awareness. With each pause in sound and motion, the cobra settled into what appeared to be a deeper sleep.

Go fer it, sonny, the old man loudly repeated himself.

Please hurry, Harry, Harlow urged from the edge of the bar. It hadn’t even occurred to her to get down. The unfolding drama was mesmerizing, and not only to Harlow. Harry impulsively wheeled to bellow back at her, breaking her spell, and that of the snake. Look, Ms. Goodie-Two-Shoes, I’m going as fast as I can. Gimme a break, all right?

But Harry had acted most imprudently. From that point on, it became a good dream gone sour. It all happened so fast—too fast. Hardly anyone in the crowd was aware of it when it did happen. But just as Harry’s hand was sure to clear the top edge of the tank, the big snake leapt up, delivered its deadly cargo of venom, and silently sank back down to the tank floor, where it expanded its neck ribs to form the all-too-familiar cobra hood.

It appeared to smile as it arched upward and swayed back and forth, hissing, its tongue darting in and out between blood-soaked fangs. Fangs soaked with Harry’s blood.

Harry screamed, the incredible pain flaring inside his hand and working its way up his arm toward his heart. He had dropped his prize on impact, and looked in helpless horror as the rock tumbled back into the tank. The twelve-foot hamadryad was quick to curl its coils over the stone, and there were those who swore they saw the snake actually grin in total triumph.

Harry stared into the distance, his eyes incredulous. He gazed first at the snake, then at the trickles of yellow slime that appeared to be erupting from the two tiny, puffy volcanoes that pitted his hand. He turned pale as the realization brutally sank in: he was going to die.

With exaggerated effort, he staggered to within a few feet of Harlow, to murmur, Guess you were right all along, Lady…should have never done— It was a sentence he never got to complete. He clutched his chest, reeled, and collapsed to the floor.

The assembled crowd climbed over each other to circle above him, shoving the reluctant Momma to their rear. To her credit she frantically did her best to peel away the outer ring of gawkers with, Let me through—I’ve got enough antitoxin here in this syringe to levitate a hundred-year-old zombie. He’ll survive if I can get it to him soon enough!

Harlow scurried down from the bar and wormed herself through several human entanglements to put Harry’s head on her lap.

"Please, Mister, ah, Harry. Don’t die. You’re my only hope. You can’t die. I’ve got to get out of here. Please don’t die on me," she begged.

Harry, eyes bulging, tried to respond, but the best he could do was grind his teeth and watch his body shaking in short spasms as he gasped for breath.

Don’t be such a baby, Momma consoled. You’re not going to die. This stuff I’m jabbing you with is pretty damn good...you’ll be up and pinching my girls’ fannies again in no time. But as she turned her head to shout back to the constricting crowd with, C’mon, back off and give this guy some goddamn room to breathe, Harry’s face became locked in speechless horror, and he quit breathing altogether.

The mob parted as requested, but not without resistance, and far too late to help poor Harry.

Momma snapped her head back from her hollering and paled at the sight that awaited her. After shoving two fingers into Harry’s throat, she said, mystified, Must have been his heart, the poor slob, no fuckin’ cobra bite works that fast—unless you maybe get it on the neck or something. He must have died from sheer fright. What a dumb shit.

As if she was used to people dying in her bar every day, Momma ordered two of her hirelings to drag the body out. Take him over to Doc Kranner, and somebody call Johnny Law. Tell ’em I’ll come down and help ’em fill out the report later. I don’t want ’em coming in here. It’s bad for business. Then she added under her breath, They better not give me any goddamn flack about this. They sure gouge me enough every month to look the other way on the other crap that goes down in here.

Momma offered everyone a round of drinks—on the house—when the majority threatened to go bombastic. That’s enough excitement for one night, she bellowed. Drink up; think maybe I’ll close up shop early tonight. The crowd surged up to the bar, looking from the top balcony like legs moving in concert under a fifty-foot-long centipede. They made a noisy nuisance out of themselves as Momma and her help frantically served drink after drink.

Later, when she had assured herself that things were settling down, Momma headed for the door, motioned and shouted over her shoulder, Business as usual tomorrow, guys, party’s over. As if she thought anyone needed reminding, she added, Be sure and come back. I got bills to pay, you know. The locals plowed through the swinging doors, as they all knew Momma’s authoritative orders were not to be ignored.

Left behind were Momma’s help and the drunks, people Momma made a practice of letting sleep it off in place when the occasion presented itself. But Harlow also stayed behind. Yeah, business as usual, she complained bitterly. You have your people drag out the only hope I had of leaving this hellhole alive, and you call it ‘business as usual’. Momma came closer to put her arm around Harlow, but the blonde shrugged her off. She stared through the swinging bar doors out into the street, and continued raving with her back to Momma. Look at them. They watch a man die—just for sport—then they soak up all the free drinks you’ll allow them like nothing ever happened. I think they’re the most despicable people I’ve ever seen in all my life.

Harlow spun around, sidestepping the amused Momma, and ran to the center of the room. She glared while pointing an accusing finger in a wide arc that encompassed the barkeeps and all the drunks in her view. She added in a steady low voice, And believe me, I’ve seen some doozies in my time!

Her hazel eyes were but slits, red and puffy, like the aftermath of a four-hanky two-reeler back home. Even Mommy couldn’t console her when she got like this.

Stepping forward and leaning back against the doorway, Momma shrugged. I gave him the same chance I give everybody who comes in here. Is it my fault the local hoi polloi like to watch saps like him try for the shiny brass ring? What were you doing just now? Lollygagging, weren’t you, Duchess, safe and high up there on the bar? Sure, they were watching the show. I noticed you didn’t turn away, either.

Harlow’s answer to Momma was another of her cold stares. True, she was angry, but mostly it was because Momma was right. She had enjoyed the show—while it lasted.

But Momma had that other good question. What the heck was she doing here? Not just here in the bar, but what the heck was she doing in Mbuji-Mayi, anyway? Much more importantly, how was she ever going to get out, now that her only hope had died with Harry?

Yes indeed—what the bloody heck was she doing? Where the expletive was Mbuji-Mayi, anyway? In thinking about it, Harlow had to admit it was no accident that she was in that particular bar. Thinking over the last few days, she had to admit it was her own damn fault she was in the trouble she was in. Travel southeast, no more than one hundred km from Kananga, by all accounts one of Zaire’s bigger cities, and you too just might stumble onto Mbuji-Mayi on your way. It’s one of those places where you’d be wearing a Where the hell’s Mbuji-Mayi? T-shirt if it was anything closer to resembling civilization.

Father Saboon had told Harlow what to expect. She had found him begging for alms for the poor at the local airport. He had taken her under his wing, and had become something of a mentor to her. It was he who had introduced her to Harry. The Father, a balding, bone-thin man in his late fifties, wore an unkempt gray beard and tattered clothes of similar color. But his green eyes were kindly, and he said he knew everything worth knowing about Mbuji-Mayi and its indigenous people. His stories on the subject were boundless.

What rates it a place on the map, Saboon once told Harlow, isn’t the lush green jungle that surrounds it, the beauty of the friendly ladies of the night, or even its proximity to the historical Congo River you’ve probably read about. It’s Old Man Greed. He’s alive and well. He lives right here, and as you can see, he has plenty of friends to keep him company.

Harlow had dwelled on his every word as if they were swallows through a straw stuck in an ice-cold Shirley Temple. She naively believed the man could do no wrong; even now she believed.

You want to know what brings people here? It’s diamonds, what else? Here in Mbuji you can still find them, Saboon had said, both legal and illegal, and some of us will even live to tell about it after we collect them. At first, Harlow had only paid lip service to being interested in what Saboon had to say. But in time his words more than intrigued her. Still, would he ever get around to helping her before she ran out of enough money to pay his bar tab? As a reporter, one of the first things she’d learned was that if you want water, you gotta prime the pump first. How much priming was he going to take?

Diamonds are a major drawing card here for people like me, of questionable character, from all over the world, he said. A chuckle had set the tone. They flock like maggots drawn to bloody magpies—hard-pushing to make their deals. Winners, losers. They all come here. Will he ever stop rambling? Harlow had wondered.

People with dubious pasts, people with pristine high hopes and thorny aspirations. And on and on. Under different circumstances, Harlow would have been hooked; he was such an interesting character. But the moment was nearly ruined when Saboon paused to spit into a tarnished copper spittoon, an act that made her stomach churn. Was he a slime-ball like all the rest of the men she’d met in the area?

Saboon rambled on. Mostly losers and natives who work their skins off hoping to make enough to move the hell away. Father Saboon’s voice trailed off as he coyly solicited another bottle of the local hooch from Harlow. In all fairness, most of us make at least the attempt at honest toil when we first get here. But take my word for it, there are those, and I suppose there will always be, who connive to better their lot by any means. He drank a long swig from the bottle. These are dangerous men who make their own opportunities while they’re here, he continued. Most, like me, manage to cover up their past afterward, and then, unlike me, move on to pastures of darker green. That, I’m afraid, dear lady, is the Mbuji-Mayi of today, a land of opportunists.

Harlow couldn’t help noticing at the time that Saboon was beginning to slur his words.

Theesh are people, he continued, involved in developing a past they must always hide. Toward that end you can’t find a bar here where somebody isn’t trying to sell you something.

He paused only to take another swallow. Then with a wave of his hand he said, A treasure map, something off the black market, or a stolen trinket they claim belonged to a famous figure like Rommel, King Solomon, or even Hemingway. As for me, I wouldn’t stoop so low; instead I sell the real thing, shrunken human heads. Have ’em sent to me from Hong Kong. I’m legit in what I sell.

Yes, Father, you’ve told me all this before. Can you please get to the part where you can help me? Harlow urged.

Her anguished pleas were wasted on the good Father. Saboon knew an excellent mark when he saw one. And he knew more than enough to stall Harlow to the point where he could glean a few more free drinks from her. Saboon knew it all, all right, and would ramble on to her and anyone able and willing to feed his booze-cravings. But there was marginal truth to what he had to say. If one were to come to Mbuji and craved the color, or wanted some information, or just longed for companionship, they ultimately would ferret out one of his bars du jour.

Sooner or later, everyone coming to the city would find themselves at Momma Mobusu’s, too. Harlow had heard it right. It was here, everyone she met had told her, that you could find almost anything you wanted from Zaire—including a way out.

If, however, Father Saboon hadn’t agreed to bring her to the bar, Harlow didn’t know what she would have done. Going there alone didn’t exactly appeal to her: all those burly men. But now that he had brought her, he proved to be more interested in drink than in keeping a watchful eye on her. Ever leery, she kept a watchful eye on the front door, fearful that at any moment the local police might stroll in and prove to her she had been found out.

On her first arrival at Momma’s, this particular afternoon, Harlow had sized up the place and tried to tie a garnish on what she saw. She noted with tribulation that Momma Mobusu’s clientele included twenty or so blacks, what the locals called coloreds; a like number of assorted Europeans, including sundry Frenchmen, Belgians, and boisterous ex-German Nazi patriots; and more than a few unsavory sots, taking up otherwise perfectly good chairs and tables.

Harlow noted that off in a corner were two titans with bulging tattoo-marred biceps engaging in undulating, sweaty arm-wrestling. By the stairs were at least ten noisy card-playing rowdies, comprised of a hodgepodge of mixed nationalities. They were all belly-bumping a large table and working themselves into a fever pitch betting on moldy-looking cards. There were piles of poker chips in the center of the table. The whole room was partially obscured by a thick haze of cigarette smoke. A typical gathering for a bar like this, she speculated. She kept close to Saboon as he headed for the nearest barstool.

Harlow could have counted the women in attendance on the fingers of one hand. They had tattoos too, though not as erotic as the ones the two arm-twisters sported. If Momma had one, it wasn’t in a place polite people would want to look, Harlow surmised. A green parrot that Momma kept in a wire-dome cage high over the bar added color to the scene, in both feathers and language. Harlow tried not to stare at the full-length painting of a nude lady hanging behind the bar.

After giving up on Father Saboon being sober enough to help, Harlow pleaded her case to everyone she dared talk to, anyone who would even pretend to listen to her plight. But nobody had any ideas she could take seriously—though it stroked her ego that all had propositions for her to consider. Finally, Father Saboon bounced back to reality long enough to point out the relatively clean-cut stranger she later learned was Harry. He said he’d help, and Harlow believed in him. Father Saboon would never have referred Harry to her if there were any question as to his integrity. A good