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Love and Larceny in Lusaka - A Mystery

June 2000

By Kelly Bembry Midura

Bea died the night before she was due to leave for a Zimbabwean safari. Her passport and ticket lay on her desk in preparation for an early departure. On the chintz bedspread, a soft-sided tapestry American Tourister suitcase lay open, overflowing with khaki trousers and Land’s End camp shirts in pastel colors. A well-thumbed Guide to Wildlife of the Zambezi River sat beside her suitcase, along with several colorful tour brochures.

Beatrice Foster had been alone in the world, a Foreign Service Secretary who had long ago given up finding a man who would be willing to accommodate her transient lifestyle. A member of the small corps of highly trained State Department secretaries, she transferred to a new position in a new country every three years.

She had no family living with her in Zambia to sort out her belongings for shipment to her relatives in the U.S., so when asked by the Ambassador’s wife, I agreed to do the job. I was currently unemployed, having foolishly agreed to accompany my husband to Zambia, a former British colony that was decaying rapidly and not at all gracefully. I’m Maggie Mulhall, wife of one James Mulhall, an overworked, underpaid press officer for the United States Embassy in the Zambian capital city of Lusaka. We had been in Lusaka for about a year, and I had spent a good bit of that time plotting ways to get out. My arguments fell on deaf ears. James was convinced that eventually someone would notice his willingness to serve in Zambia and reward him with a promotion.

The younger of my daughters had just entered first grade at the International School of Lusaka, which seemed to have been a signal that I was available for the performance of good deeds. The Ambassador’s wife, along with her cohorts in the old-fashioned social club that I privately dubbed the “Terminally Bored Expatriate Wives’ Association,” kept me busy with frequent requests for help with charitable projects.

Though I had just about had it with blowing up balloons and baking cookies for fundraisers, I didn’t mind packing up Bea’s belongings. She was a lovely person who certainly hadn’t deserved her fate: death by drowning in her own bathtub. I knew Bea to be gentle and quietly elegant, with a gift for languages. Childless herself, she had always taken an interest in the Embassy children’s activities and often asked me about my own two daughters.

OK, my motives for agreeing to the task of sorting Bea’s worldly goods were not entirely altruistic. Pathological nosiness also had something to do with it. I was anxious to see the inside of her house. Only James had suspected my hidden agenda. When I told him that I would be in charge of the shipment, he looked at me over the top of his ever-present newspaper with raised eyebrows. Clearly about to say something, he abruptly reconsidered. Either James found my inquisitiveness to be endearing or was just happy I’d be productively occupied and off his case for a couple of days. A tacit truce was declared and neither of us pressed the issue.

According to James, groups of American employees been discussing Bea in low tones in the narrow hallways of our tiny Embassy, trying to rationalize her death. The African employees just shook their heads. They understood that death is just that, death. A frequent enough occurrence in Zambia, where funerals were by far the most common social event, often lasting for days and bankrupting the family of the deceased. The dead were very much a part of daily life in Zambia, and were constantly appeased lest they seek vengeance for perceived slights.

Bea’s flighty Zambian housekeeper, Victoria, had found her body the morning after she died, and had apparently been hysterical ever since, refusing to return to the house even to collect her precious clothes and shoes. She was convinced that Bea’s staring, dead eyes had laid a curse on her.

Victoria was now readying herself for certain death and had talked her entire family into her notion as well. Her common-law husband, Towson, had already approached Bea’s boss, the Deputy Chief of Mission, to request a donation to buy chibuku, the local home brewto serve to the guests at Victoria’s impending funeral. Asking an employer to finance the funeral of a relative was a common practice in Lusaka, but generally the subject of the funeral was declared dead beforehand. Towson’s request was politely declined.

No wonder Victoria was freaking out. Not only was her husband eagerly anticipating the libations to be enjoyed upon her demise, but her prospects for future employment were questionable. At an Embassy office party the week before, I had heard Bea telling Earl Pritchard, our Security Officer, about having caught Victoria stealing loose change. Earl, a beefy ex-cop from the Georgia sticks, had occasionally squired Bea to social functions and was suffering from a mild crush on the ladylike middle-aged secretary, in my opinion. He had wanted to “bust” Victoria that very night and send her packing, but Bea wouldn’t hear of it.

“She’s got seven children, Earl, and another one due any minute,” she said, laying a gentle hand on his hairy, muscular forearm. “That disreputable husband of hers probably drank her salary and left her without food money. I gave her a good talking-to and warned that I wouldn’t stand for it happening again. That should take care of it.”

Earl harrumphed, but Bea had a way with him. That was clearly the end of the discussion.

Maybe I was getting cynical but I thought that Bea had been hopelessly naive. Victoria had probably been stealing from her for months. When she walked into Bea’s bathroom and saw those lifeless, accusing eyes, she probably just felt guilty about all the stuff she had stashed at home.

Fortunately, I was not as easily spooked as the Zambian housekeeper was. I had had a lifelong interest in–some might call it obsession with–murder, mayhem, and other quirks of human nature. Years of underemployment combined with a plentiful supply of true crime, horror, and mystery novels had fed my tendency to be cynical, morbid, or just plain weird, according to my long-suffering spouse and permanently embarrassed pre-pubescent daughters. It would take more than an evening alone at the scene of an accidental death to give me the willies, or so I thought.

The gate to Bea’s driveway was closed but unlocked. Usually a guard was posted at each house to open the gates, but this one must have taken advantage of his unsupervised status to take an extended lunch break. To save time, I parked my beloved Jeep outside the front wall and walked up the driveway.

I fully expected the interior of the house to match the depressing prison-like exterior. Ugly iron bars caged each metal-framed window, and a large steel door marked the main entrance. Upon entering her home, I was surprised to find that the gray concrete structure was filled with brightly colored souvenirs of many countries arranged side by side with photos of her nieces and nephews. Evidently, Bea’s love of shopping had led to her to the diplomatic corps. Oriental carpets covered the cold concrete tile floors, and the drab government furniture had been spruced up with dozens of brilliant throw pillows. The effect was more homey than tasteful, but I liked it.

After admiring my surroundings for a few minutes I rolled up my sleeves, popped open some empty boxes that the Commissary had donated for the purpose, and got to work. Bea’s sister had asked that I pick out some small items to send home to the nieces and nephews that she had been so fond of. I cleared the shelves and end tables of knick-knacks, stacking them up on the dining table, and began sorting African baskets, Russian matrushka dolls and Mexican painted pottery into piles. I worked for a couple of hours, sneezing at the accumulation of red African dust and listening to the BBC World Service on Bea’s shortwave radio.

Finishing up in the living room, I moved into Bea’s bedroom, which was a cozy retreat lined with photos and dozens of books. Bea had been an avid romance reader. I smiled at the thought of the petite, immaculately dressed secretary curling up every night with a sweaty, long-haired romance novel cover-boy. They weren’t my type –like most wives of diplomats, I seemed inevitably to be attracted to skinny bespectacled guys who had played Risk at the high school debate club – but I couldn’t expect everyone to share my taste.

It didn’t make sense to ship such a quantity of inexpensive paperbacks back to the States, and I didn’t think that the American community center needed quite this much pulp fiction. I remembered Louise Butler, our embassy doctor, mentioning some local project that needed English-language materials. I found the phone, was pleasantly surprised by a dial tone, and gave her a call.

“Hey, Maggie, are you doing OK over there? Want me to drop by later and help you out?” she asked. Louise was a tall, sturdy Tennessean in her forties with an earthy sense of humor that got her through all the nasty little ailments she dealt with in this place. It couldn’t be fun pulling putsi fly larvae out of people’s skin and de-worming us all every couple of months.

“No, I’m getting through it, Louise. I just wondered if any of your Baptist missionary friends had any use for a ton of romance novels. I doubt that Bea’s family wants them, and I can’t think of what to do with the books. I don’t read romances, myself,” I said, idly flipping through Bea’s elegant little chintz phone book.

“Bea was into bodice-rippers? That’s a hoot. Sure, I’ll take them. They’ll be a big hit at Ruthie’s mission school in Eastern Province. Wait ‘til those barefoot village women get a hold of those novels—that will learn ‘em a few new phrases!” Louise chuckled at the thought.

“They’re all yours, then. I’ll just pack them into boxes and mark them with your name. I can drop them by your office tomorrow if you like. By the way, Louise, if it’s not out of line I was wondering if you could tell me what your final verdict was on the cause of Bea’s death.”

“At it again, Maggie? You’re out of luck this time. There’s no mystery here. I can’t get the full story with my puny equipment, but my best guess is that she stood up, hit her head on something, and knocked herself out before she slid underwater. She definitely drowned, in any case, because there was a small amount of water in the lungs. She’s got a minor bruise on the side of her head–it doesn’t look like she hit her head hard enough to go out cold, but then again if you get hit in just the right place it can make you pretty dizzy.”

“Earl’s been out of the office today,” she confided. “I reckon he’s a little shook up by Bea’s death, though he’ll never admit it. I need him to get this report done right quick,” she said, lowering her voice. “I can’t send Bea to the local morgue for fear she’ll defrost if the power goes out. Since we’ve got a backup generator here at the Embassy I’ve got her wrapped in plastic and propped up in the fridge that I use to store extra medicine in the clinic. It’s kind of making me nervous. For one thing, I’m afraid my receptionist will open it up by mistake and die of fright. If I warn her that Bea’s in there she’ll refuse to stay in the building with me.”

“Oh no, Louise, you have my sympathy! I didn’t even think about where you would keep Bea until they fly her home. But you’re right, there’s really no alternative.”

“I’m hoping no one else stops to think about it before Wednesday. I don’t know what I’m going to tell the administrative officer when I ask for a new refrigerator.”

I made a choking noise, unsure whether to laugh or cry. Louise continued, oblivious to my reaction.

“Before you go home tonight, can you check one thing for me? I found several small wounds on Bea’s right forearm. I’d appreciate it if you could rummage through her jewelry box and see if you see any bracelets with sharp points. Or something on her desk, like a paperweight with sharp edges that she might have put her hand down on. I’ve got to run now – will you do that for me?”

I told her I would do my best, and hung up, a host of new questions popping up in my mind. I guessed that Louise was just covering her ass, getting in all possible details about this death that had occurred on her watch. I’d do the same in her position, since people in the Embassy community were no doubt searching for some scapegoat to blame for Bea’s death. They always did at times like this.

But was there, in fact, someone to blame?

I found Bea’s jewelry box on her dresser, along with Chanel perfume and a very nice old-fashioned silver hairbrush and mirror set. She certainly had her feminine indulgences, our Bea. I was puzzled by the contents of the box, though. Just a few pieces of cheap, costume jewelry, with none of the tasteful, quality pieces that I had often admired. I supposed that embassy security guards might not have known enough about jewelry to be aware of the missing pieces, but I knew that Bea had a lovely pearl choker that she wore to official receptions, yet I did not find it in the box. Neither were there any sharp pins or bracelets.

Come to think of it, something else bothered me. Before I left for a trip I always withdrew a fair amount of cash from my account since many hotels and restaurants in the developing world were not equipped to accept traveler’s checks or credit cards. I also carried a small bag with essential items like bug repellent, sunscreen, extra underwear, and makeup with me in case my luggage was lost. Bea had obviously been packing and making other preparations for her trip, and she must have known from vast experience about the need for both liquidity and an emergency bag. As she always looked fresh and professional no matter what the circumstances, I simply could not imagine her traveling without her cosmetic kit close at hand. It was possible that the embassy security guys had taken the cash for safekeeping. But why would they take her makeup, or the tickets? And what had happened to her jewelry, anyway?

Victoria, that was what! She must have cleaned the place out after she found the Madame dead. She had already proven herself a petty thief, and the temptation evidently had been too much for her. Since the big items–television, stereo, etc.–were untouched, the theft would not have been immediately obvious to Earl, who was no doubt concentrating on more unpleasant aspects of the scene. Nevertheless, Victoria would have to have been awfully brazen to have sat there and answered questions from the burly security officer with cash, jewelry and expensive American lipstick tucked in her knickers. Had she stashed the loot somewhere nearby? Oddly enough, she had been offered the opportunity to come back to the house with me today, and presumably collect such a stash or even pocket more valuables, but had hysterically refused to return for even her own spare clothes and shoes.

I picked up the phone to give Earl a call, but was not as lucky this time. No dial tone. The line could be dead for a few minutes or a few hours; there was no telling in Africa. I decided to give it a few minutes so that I could get the books packed up for Louise. Victoria wouldn’t be going far.

Meanwhile, nature called and I answered. As was typical of all the Embassy dwellings, there was only one, rather utilitarian, bathroom. Bea had attempted to dress up the rust-stained porcelain fixtures with a Velcro sink skirt and frilly curtains, but the room still resembled a prison cell. I tried not to imagine Bea as I heard they had found her: naked, staring from under the bath water. What a way to go.

There was water on the floor left over from when the security guys had pulled her body out. For the first time I thought about how hard it must have been for Earl to recover the body. I had come to know Earl pretty well over the course of several boozy Embassy dinner parties, during which we had discovered our mutual lack of respect for stuffy State Department social mores. I wasn’t sure how deeply involved he had been with Bea, since neither of them had been chatty when it came to personal matters. I wondered how Earl was taking her death. I made a mental note to stop by and see him as I automatically reached for towels to sop up the puddles around the base of the old-fashioned, claw-foot tub.

As I reached behind the tub, I was surprised to find a hole in the wall. Well, not so surprised, really. Our houses were all gradually falling apart, but I did wonder why Bea wouldn’t have gotten the hole fixed. The climate of sub-Saharan Africa is far cooler than one would expect, especially on the high veldt where Lusaka sits several thousand feet above sea level. Temperatures often drop into the forties after nightfall in July and August, the Zambian winter. Cold baths didn’t seem to suit Bea’s personality. Her expensive perfume and jewelry hardly indicated the Spartan type. I put an experimental hand through the gap, which was just large enough to admit it. Or small items like jewelry and cash.

That did it. I had to see what was on the other side of that hole. Slipping on a jacket, I went out the back door. Bea had obviously paid little attention to this area. There was no grassy lawn; just trampled red dirt shaded by a couple of mangy-looking jacaranda trees, their white, toxic, sap bleeding streaks down the trunks. A couple of brilliant green lizards skittered out of sight at my approach. Heaps of brush were piled up against the cement back wall, a practice that was never a good idea in this country. Rats and snakes liked that sort of thing. In fact, I saw a rat the size of a large guinea pig strolling along the top of the ten-foot wall.

I froze, as I realized that I was not the only one watching the rat. In the failing late afternoon light a thin, shadowy form was visible for a moment before it lashed out. Unless I was seriously mistaken, it was a black mamba snake, possibly the most dangerous creature in sub-Saharan Africa. The mamba is fast and smart, with a bite that quickly paralyzes the victim before his inevitable death. The unlucky rat made a clumsy step or two, then tumbled off the wall to become a snaky hors d’oeuvre.

I ran back inside the house, noting in passing a flattened patch of brush underneath the bathroom window and a few pieces of crumpled newspaper scattered around. No jewelry, at least nothing that I could see with a quick glance. Curiosity was killing me, but I draw the line at poking around snake-infested back yards. Despite many years in the tropics, snakes and other critters give me the creeps, especially poisonous ones. When I reached the hallway, I closed the bathroom door and stuffed a throw rug under it, just in case the nasty thing decided to follow me through the hole.

Leaning against the door to catch my breath I examined the situation. There was one other thing that would fit nicely through that hole in the bathroom and that was a snake. Suppose Bea drowned not because she had knocked herself out, but because she was paralyzed by snakebite? That would explain the puncture wounds as well.

Had Victoria refused to come back to the house because she knew about the black mamba? I shuddered as I considered this possibility. There I was, alone in the house with a poisonous snake loose in the yard and a good forty feet between the front door and my car, parked on the street outside the walls of Bea’s compound. And no damn phone!

I was cursing under my breath and wondering what to do next when a car bumped its way up the dirt driveway. I heard the reassuring sound of Patsy Cline’s voice over the chatter of love-struck lizards, and leaned against the wall with a sigh of relief. The music abruptly ended with a clang as Louise slammed the door of her battered truck. Without ringing the bell, she strode through the front door, which, in my panic, I had forgotten to lock. I almost knocked her over with a heartfelt hug.

“Oh, thank God it’s you,” I said, slamming the front door behind her.

“Well who’d you expect? Bea’s ghost?” she asked, surprised. “I just thought I’d come by and pick up some of those books on the way home from work to save you a trip tomorrow.”

“Not now, Louise, we’ve got to talk!”

I explained the afternoon’s events as, after scanning the front driveway for anything that might wriggle or bite, I dragged her to her truck, pushed her in, and rolled up the windows. She had briefly considered the possibility of snakebite, but dismissed it as too far-fetched. Snakes were occasionally a problem within the city limits, but didn’t often show up in people’s bathrooms. Unlike rats, they generally avoided humans and stayed in the brush where they belonged. This was enough to allay the fears of most people, but like most true ophidiophobes I just assumed that everyone but me was in denial. Louise was skeptical of my theory that the snake might have been deliberately planted in Bea’s bathroom, but had lived in Africa long enough to give any theory serious consideration.

At the very least, we had good reason to suspect Victoria of theft. We called Earl on Louise’s emergency radio. He was slow in answering, and when we finally heard his gruff hello it was almost drowned out by the sound of country singer George Jones singing a sodden tale of woe.

Louise put her hand over the receiver and looked at me with concern in her eyes. “That’s music for drowning sorrows, Maggie. He may not be in any shape to deal with this right now.”

“Louise, do you want Bea out of your refrigerator and on her way to decent burial, or don’t you?” I asked.

She gave me a slightly shocked look, then grinned and yelled into the mouthpiece. “Earl! Turn that goddam bellyaching down!”

I heard a surprised grumble and the music, if you want to call it that, abruptly stopped.

“That’s better!” she continued. “Now grab some coffee, stick your head under some cold water, whatever it takes, and get over to Bea’s place pronto. Maggie’s on to something here that I think you better look into.”

“Good job,” I told her as she signed off.

“I’m not done yet,” she muttered, as she flipped through her dog-eared Embassy radio call sign list. Locating a name, she flipped on the radio again and contacted Lungu, a quick-witted Zambian guard who often worked closely with Earl in the Embassy security office. He promised to head straight for Earl’s place and make sure that he arrived at Bea’s house in one piece.

“Now I’m done.” Louise said as she signed off. “I don’t want Earl driving himself over here after all that George Jones.”

We agreed that the romance novels could wait, and sat inside Louise’s truck waiting for the cavalry to arrive. I described my theory to her in greater detail, including the hole in the back of the house, the flattened area beneath it, and the newspapers that I was now sure had been used to plug the hole until the snake could be pushed through it. Her disbelief faded as I recalled a length of string that had been hanging from the bush underneath the bathroom window.

“I saw a snake handler at one of those Pentecostal revivals when I was a girl,” she said thoughtfully. “He used a string leash just like the one you’re describing. If it can be done down in Mississippi, I reckon it can be done in Zambia.”

Earl arrived a few minutes later, clad in a wrinkled T-shirt, his wet hair slicked back and covered by an Atlanta Braves ball cap. The dunking had done him good. He seemed fairly alert. Lungu had arrived in time to offer him a ride in a Toyota Land Cruiser used by the Embassy’s roving security patrol. As they stopped the truck and opened the doors to get out I yelled at them to stay inside, explaining that there was a black mamba loose in the yard.

Now Earl was definitely interested. Louise pulled her truck up alongside the Land Cruiser and I outlined my theory for Lungu and Earl. Earl’s face grew darker as I explained that Bea’s death might not have been an accident but a highly indigenous form of homicide. Lungu was not as surprised as we had been that Victoria or a companion might have handled a poisonous snake.

“In my country, Madam, we are still having witchcraft. Many things are possible here that you may not be believing,” he said, nodding sagely. “My wife’s sister is the cousin of the brother of Victoria. I know where she lives. Mr. Pritchard, shall I take you there to ask her yourself about this killing with snakes?”

“Let’s go, Lungu,” Earl growled, “I believe I need to speak to Victoria and that no-account husband of hers.”

Earl didn’t want us to follow him and Lungu into Kalingalinga, the labyrinthine slum where Victoria lived with her seven children. But he couldn’t shake off Louise.

“Earl, it’s none of your damn business if me and Maggie want to do some exploring.” She opened her glove compartment and showed him the Colt .45 she had stashed there. “Any questions?”

Lungu looked as if he might have a few, but Earl knew when he had met his match. We negotiated the narrow dirt alleyways of Kalingalinga as quickly as was possible in our oversized vehicles. Skinny, round-bellied children shivering in torn T-shirts in the chilly evening air scattered at our approach. Tiny mud houses roofed with thatch were in the majority, while the more prosperous inhabitants boasted two-room cement block dwellings roofed with tin. Our wheels slipped on piles of garbage at every intersection of the narrow, deeply rutted streets.

Finally, we reached Victoria’s house, marked by the maid’s uniform drying on the tin roof. The roar of the Land Cruiser’s engine had alerted her to our arrival. She stood frozen on her doorstep, hugely pregnant with a skinny toddler on her hip and other children’s eyes peeking out from the dark, windowless interior of her house. Earl heaved himself out of the Land Cruiser, stomped up to her, and extracted a quick and tearful confession.

Victoria really was convinced that Bea had put a curse on her. Her husband, Towson, had been the “brains” behind a scheme so twisted that it could only happen in Zambia. He had been hired occasionally by kind-hearted Bea to do odd jobs in the yard and had noticed the hole in the bathroom wall. Towson had then purchased a black mamba from a witch doctor who had also helpfully cast a protection spell that would theoretically render him invulnerable to the snake’s bite.

“This doctor, he told Towson that his grandfather was protecting him from the snake. But sir, I was hoping this was not true!” she sobbed. “He made me let him into the yard before the madam came home from work. I was afraid to leave the house because of the mamba, but I could hear him hitting the wall with a rock. I did not know exactly what he was doing but I knew it was not good.” At this point the hysterical Victoria lapsed completely into Chinyanja, the local African Creole, and Lungu had to translate the rest.

Towson had enlarged the small hole, stuffed it with newspaper so that no draft would be noticed, and waited in the bushes until he heard the bath running. Then he had removed the newspaper and slipped the snake through the hole in the wall with the aid of the string noose. I imagine that Bea stood up in alarm after the snake bit her, possibly bruising her head on the shower head, then fallen as paralysis took hold. Towson and Victoria cleaned out the money and jewelry while she slipped helplessly under the bath water.

Towson came weaving home through the rutted alley alongside his house while Earl was questioning Victoria. He was a tall, gangly man wearing filthy, torn clothing and reeking of chibuku, cheap perfume and sweat. Evidently, he had already blown the cash and jewelry on whores. When he figured out what was going on, he let loose a stream of nasty sounding Chinyanja invective and started to slap Victoria around right in front of us. Earl stood silent for a moment, then with a primal roar, grabbed Towson by the back of his neck and slammed him across the hood of the Land Cruiser.

“You sorry son-of-a bitch,” he hissed, “I ought to break your goddam neck.”

It looked like he was about to do that, when Lungu shouted “Sir!” and stepped forward with handcuffs ready. “Are you wanting me to handcuff the suspect, Mr. Pritchard? ” he said hurriedly. “I believe that is the procedure.”

Earl halted, Towson’s skinny neck clamped firmly in the crook of his powerful arm. Towson’s eyes rolled back in his head as he gasped for breath. I was speechless, frozen by the drama unfolding in the dusty street.

After a long moment, Louise dared to speak. She said quietly, “The kids, Earl. You can’t do this in front of the kids.”

Earl turned toward the row of terrified, dark eyes in the doorway. Victoria stood with her face in her hands, sobbing and hiccuping, probably beyond caring whether Towson’s neck was broken. Finally, Earl relaxed his grip and Towson fell, retching, to the ground. Lungu was on him instantly, slapping the cuffs on his wrists in a manner that would make a New York City cop proud.

As Lungu hauled the dazed Towson to the back of the Land Cruiser and dumped him into the “cage” in the back, Earl turned and lumbered a few yards away, oblivious to the crowd that had gathered at a cautious distance from the spectacle. He leaned against an abandoned car and stared away from us at something we could not see. After a minute or two he shakily lit a cigarette.

I sat down on a stack of rocks and waited a minute for my heartbeat to slow down. As I stood up and started toward Earl to comfort him, I was halted by a low whistle from Lungu, who was using a wad of dry grass to wipe Towson’s bile from his trouser leg. He beckoned to me and I walked over to him to see what he wanted. He nodded his head toward Louise, who was slowly approaching Earl, speaking in low tones as one might address a wounded animal.

“She is taking care of him, Madam. She is good at taking care of men like him.” He grinned conspiratorially at me.

I smiled back at him. “You are right Lungu. She is very good for men like him.”

******************************************

A couple of days later I visited Earl in his office at the Embassy. Louise must have been doing a good job, since he looked clean-shaven and sober, if a bit grim. He filled me in on the remaining details. By the time the glacially slow Zambian police force got around to picking up Victoria, she had vanished with her children. “Probably headed back out to her family’s village in the bush now that she’s rid of Towson.” Earl remarked. “We’ll never find her, and it’s no sweat off my nose. Victoria’s no threat to anyone without Towson around to beat her into it. She and her brood have suffered enough already.”

“What about the snake?” I asked, “I still have to get back into the house and finish sorting out Bea’s things.”

“Lungu suggested that we make Towson get that snake since he’s protected by his hoodoo man’s spell,” Earl replied with a flash of his familiar wicked grin. “I left that up to my buddies in the Zambian police force. I don’t know yet whether he caught the sucker, but I can check on it for you.”

Poor Bea. Murdered so one man could have one night of boozing and screwing. Shortly after she was sent home for the last time she was buried in her family plot in Kansas City. Later that week, after repeated assurances that the mamba was nowhere to be found, I finished sorting Bea’s personal belongings and supervised the Zambian movers who packed them up for shipment to the U.S.

I sent Bea’s sister a sympathetic note, but I don’t think that her family was ever fully informed of the details of her death. I doubt that they would have believed the story even if some State Department official had managed to put it in writing. Maybe I’ll try and tell the tale myself. I think that those little nieces and nephews who go to bed every night with exotic baskets and dolls on their book shelves would like to hear more about their beloved Aunt Bea’s African life and death some day.

© 1999 by Kelly Bembry Midura. All rights reserved.

 Kelly Bembry Midura is a freelance writer and website designer.