Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Case of the Missing Bicycle - Part 1 of 2

A Detective Mpoto story by yours truly

The Case of the Missing Bicycle

Missionary Detective Mpoto munched on a fresh banana as he walked to Jim and Bea's house. He was happy: the day was sunny but not yet hot, and he had a new puzzle to ponder. Stray dogs rested in the shade of the green trees, too tired or content to give him chase. He chose the shortcut through the tall grass beside the Immigration office and crossed the next dirt road as he went over the facts of his new case.

He had been sitting in his office when the President called him and asked him to meet with her in the staff kitchen. Two other men were already there: the night security guard and one of the blockmakers, a friend of Mpoto's named Ben.

"We had a report from house number 2," the President began. "Their bicycle is missing; it was left in their backyard last night." House number 2 was one of the rental houses that God's No.1 Mission had built last year, and it was rented by Jim and Bea, who happened to be colleagues of Mpoto, from the same NGO that had sent him to God's No.1 Mission.

The security guard took up the story. "Jim reported a strange noise at 6:30 this morning. He went outside and found the bicycle missing. He came to me at the guardshack and told me. I didn't see anyone."

"I think I saw someone take it," Ben broke in. "Although it was yesterday. When the rain came down heavy yesterday, I ducked under the shelter by the cement mixer to wait out the storm. Then I saw your gardener, Mr. Mpoto, leaving Bea's house with the bicycle. I knew it was him, because, well, I know him, and he was wearing that blue uniform with the white stripes on the legs."

"What colour was the bicycle?" asked Mpoto.

"Yellow," answered Ben. He was right. And it was also true that he knew the gardener in question, because said gardener worked one day a week at Jim and Bea's house, so the two of them crossed paths often.

Mpoto reflected on the timing. Jim and Bea had just arrived two days ago with their new bicycle. They had also had a few other things go missing from the back of their house, but they had been absent for three months, so it wasn't a great surprise. They had been at Mpoto's house yesterday for his son's birthday party when it was raining, so no one had been home.

Mpoto did not want to believe that his gardener was a thief.

He had gone home to talk to Mrs. Mpoto after the meeting. They had agreed that he should talk to Jim and Bea before taking any action. They had also agreed that he should make it clear to his gardener that there would be no bad consequences if the bicycle was returned.

Mpoto picked some roses to take to Bea. As he was leaving his gate, he noticed the gardener, whose name was Sam, standing under the mango tree. He hadn't greeted him yet today, so he walked over to him and asked "How are you?"

"I'm okay," said Sam. Then he said suddenly, "I didn't take the bicycle."

"Oh?" Mpoto remembered that Ben and the security guard had mentioned that they had confronted Sam on their way to talk to the President. Sam had denied that he had taken it and had agreed that they could go to his house to look. But the President had said that that was up to Jim and Bea.

"I didn't take it," Sam insisted. "You know I already have two bicycles. What is going to happen?" His eyes held fear. He was afraid for his job.

"Don't worry," said Mpoto. "I want to believe you. But let me go and discuss with Jim. And also, just let me say, if you did take it, there won't be any consequences. Just return the bicycle." Hopefully Sam understood; his English was okay, but not fluent.

Mpoto stepped over a dead frog, turned black by hundreds of busy ants scurrying over it. He turned down the lane to God's No.1 Mission Housing Complex, and was about to knock on the door of House 2, when Jim suddenly opened it.

"Come in!" he said cheerfully. "I'm just putting up these new solar lights now. How did you thread them through the ceiling in your house?" There had been power cuts for six months, and the boss had bought solar lights for all the employees.

Mpoto explained how he had wired his lights, gave Bea the roses; then they moved outside. "You can see the track from the bicycle," said Jim, pointing at the dusty cement path. "The back wheel couldn't even turn, so it had to be dragged or carried."

"Wait--you mean it wasn't a brand new bicycle? I saw it in the back of your van and thought you had just bought it in Lusaka."

"Oh no, this was that beat-up one that Shelaine used two years ago in Macha. The wheel was stuck, the pedals were missing, the brakes didn't work...we were going to take it to the market to see how much it would cost to get it fixed up. It might not even be worth it. The only good part of it is the frame."

Mpoto grinned and sighed at the same time. All this fuss over a broken bicycle. But to some, it was important. At least Ben seemed to think it was important.

Jim and Mpoto noticed how the track stopped a bit before the gate. It appeared the bike would have been lifted over it--not that hard of a task for a strong person. Sam had a key to this gate, so he likely would have opened it and dragged it though, Mpoto decided. But the tracks stopped there; the rain had likely washed them away in the red dirt past the carport.

It was Ben's word against Sam's; or else Ben had been mistaken about who he saw: after all, it was raining, he was a fair distance away, and Sam's uniform was very common among workers in the area. Mpoto thought of something else. "What time were you talking on your phone on the porch outside yesterday, during the party?" he asked. "Was Sam outside then?"

Jim didn't think so, but Mpoto thought he had seen them together after he had come back from town--at the end of the rainstorm when he had to open the gate to drive in and had gotten quite wet. It would have been around 15:00, which was the time that Sam usually went home...the timing sort of fit, but something wasn't quite right...

"Let's take Sam home and look for the bike there," he suggested. "Then he can clear his name, I can tell Ben that we checked, and we can move on. I need to get back to work anyway."

So Jim started the van. As they were leaving, Mpoto saw Ben at the Estate gate. He rolled down his window and mentioned the plan. Ben made like he wanted to come along, but Mpoto firmly said that he didn't need to come. "You won't find it," Ben shrugged. "He's had enough time to make a phone call and someone will hide it for him."

"That's fine," said Mpoto. "We're still going to check." And they drove off to pick up their gardener.

WHODUNIT? Find out next time, in Part 2!

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