Friday 19th July, Cotonou Port.
The thirty-five-ton Titan truck hissed and rocked on its suspension as it came to a halt. Shoulders hunched, it gave a dead-eyed stare over the line of scrimmage which was the chain across the opening of the port gates. On the wood panelling behind the cab were two hand-painted film posters of big men holding guns-Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone-the bandana boys. He handed down his papers to the customs officer who took them into the gatehouse and checked them off. Excitement rippled through the rollicking crowd of whippet-thin men and boys who'd gathered outside the gates in the afternoon's trampling heat, which stank of the sea and diesel and rank sweat.
The Titan was loaded with bales of second-hand clothes tied down on to the flat-bed of the truck by inch-thick hemp rope. The driver, faceless behind his visor, kicked up the engine which blatted black fumes from a four-inch-wide pipe, ballooning a passing policeman's shirt. A squeal of anticipation shimmered through the crowd.
Six men, armed with wooden batons the thickness of pickaxe handles, climbed on to the edges of the flat-bed, three a side. Each of them twisted a wrist around a rope and hung off, twitching their cudgels through the thick air. The crowd positioned themselves along the thirty metres of road from the gates to the junction with Boulevard de la Marina. The officer came out with the papers and handed them back up to the driver. He nodded to the man on chain duty who looked at the crowd outside and grinned.
The huge truck farted up some more and lurched as the driver thumped it into gear. He taunted the crowd with his air brakes. They giggled, high-pitched, nearly mad. The chain dropped and the battered, grinning face of the Titan dipped and surged across the line. The men hanging off the back roared and slashed with their batons. The truck picked up some momentum, the cab through the gates now, and the crowd threw themselves at the wall of bales, clawing at the clothes packed tight as scrap metal. The batons connected. Men and boys fell stunned as insects, one was dragged along by the leg of a pair of jeans he'd torn from a bale until a sharp crack on the wrist dropped him. The Titan snarled into second gear.
I saw the boy coming from some way off. He was dressed in a white shirt, a pair of long white shorts and flip-flops. He turned the corner off Boulevard de la Marina up to the port gates and was swallowed up by the mêlée who were now running at a sprint. A baton arced down into the pack and caught the boy on the back of the head. He fell forward, bounced off the hip of some muscled brute who held the reins of a nylon pink nightie stretched to nine feet, and disappeared under the wheels of the Titan.
The crowd roared, and the section around where the boy had fallen collapsed to the ground. The truck pulled away, crashing through the gears. It didn't stop for the Boulevard de la Marina. The driver stood on his horn. Cars and mopeds squirmed across the tarmac. The men riding shotgun stopped swinging their batons and hung on with both hands. The Titan let out a final triumphant blat of exhaust and headed into town.
I got out of my Peugeot and ran across to where the boy had gone down. People came from all angles. Closer, I could see his arm, the white bone of his arm and the blood soaking into the sleeve and up the chest of his shirt. Some of the hoodlums around him were smeared with his blood, four of them upped and ran. The rest were staring down at the mash of flesh and bone and the thick red ooze on the road. Then the boy was picked up and borne away, his crushed arm hanging like a rag, his head thrown back, eyes rolled to white. Three men ran him down to the main road and threw him into a car which took off in the direction of the hospital. Then they stood and looked at his blood on their shirts.
I was called back to my car which was waiting to get into the port. Horns blared. Arms whirled.
'M. Medway, M. Medway. Entrez, entrez! Main-te-nant. Main-te-nant.'
I drove in, threading through the line of trucks waiting to get out, past a pile of spaghetti steel wire just beginning to brown with rust. It was five o'clock in the afternoon. I took a small towel from the passenger seat and wiped away the tears of sweat streaming down my face.
I was heading for a ship called the Kluezbork II, Polish flag, 15,000 tons deadweight. Bagado, my ex-partner in M & B 'Investigations and Debt Collection' and now back in the Cotonou force in his old job as a detective, was waiting for me on board. He had a problem, a five-men-dead problem. But it wasn't as big as the captain's problem which was five men dead on his ship, all stowaways, his vessel and cargo impounded indefinitely and he passing the time of day right now in a hell cell with twenty odd scumbags down at the Sûreté in town.
Bagado had told me to get down to the port as fast as possible because the stink was getting bad and they wanted the bodies on ice pronto, but it was important for me to see the situation down there. Why me? He'd blethered on about my shipping experience, but what he really wanted to do was to talk and since his boss, Commandant Bondougou, had split us up and taken him back into the force he didn't like being seen down at my office too much.
The ship's holds were all open and I caught the smell of the five men beginning to putrefy from the quay. The engineer pointed me to number three hold's hatch where some sick-looking young policemen were hanging around for further instructions. Bagado was waiting on a platform halfway down into the hold. He stood, hands jammed into the pockets of his blue mac, which had more creases than an old man's scrotum. He nodded over the platform's rail at the five dead men. Three of them were propped against the metal wall of the hold looking as if they'd just dozed off while staring at the wall of timber which was the cargo in hold number three. The other two lay on their fronts, in the metre or so in between, like tired children who'd dropped to the floor mid-play. It was a peaceful scene uncreased by violence.
'What are you doing up here?' I asked.
'I don't know what killed them yet,' said Bagado, coming out of his trance, flat, depressed. 'I don't want to go down there and end up like that.'
'How long's the hold been open?'
'Three or four hours.'
'That should have got the air circulating. Let's take a look.'
We climbed down the ladder on to the floor of the hold.
'Looks as if they suffocated to me,' said Bagado. 'No violence, anyway.'
'We're a long way from the engine room,' I said. 'Who found them?'
'The first mate was doing a routine stowaway check and didn't like the smell in here...brought the master to the platform...that was it.'
'The only time I've heard of people suffocating in holds is on tankers, especially after palm oil. Gives off a lot of carbon dioxide. They send in the cleaners and they get halfway down the ladder before they realize they can't breathe. I heard of eight people dying like that in one hold up on Humberside.'
'But this hold isn't enclosed like a tanker's,' said Bagado, leaning against the timber wall.
'Wouldn't matter if the oxygen's displaced from the bottom,' I said, and walked between the bodies to the other side of the hold. Bagado pushed himself off the timber to follow me.
'Damn,' he said, looking at the shoulder of his mac, a big stain on it.
I touched the logs. They were still wet with sap.
'This timber's fresh,' I said.
'Loaded out of Ghana three nights ago.'
'I've heard about some of these hardwoods. They give off fumes, some of them toxic. They're pretty volatile in the heat. You put that in an enclosed hold, the oxygen levels drop...'...