The Last Delivery by Alexander Schuhr
The Last Delivery
by Alexander Schuhr
The cruel equatorial sun hit the corrugated iron roofs in the matitis of Libreville (Gabon), turning the huts into suffocating tombs. Hidden in a valley, away from the vibrant city life—with its imported luxury cars, office buildings, and busy street cafes—the matitis was a painful embarrassment to the country’s elite. Ignored and avoided by the residents of air conditioned mansions behind high walls, lay a parallel universe, dominated by mountains of garbage, abandoned buildings, and makeshift shelters. In its canyons roamed those doomed by poverty and low birth.
Marie woke up late, that Saturday. No sunlight reached her mattress in the corner of the hut. But the punishing temperature and the stale air suggested that it was around noon. Marie, soaked in sweat, rose. Her eyes crusted with sleep, she looked around. Mama was already at work, and wouldn’t be back until nightfall. There was no sign of Jonas. A half-empty bottle of Andza was on the table, next to a plate of fried plantains, guarded against roaches and flies by transparent plastic wrap. A note was placed beside the plate. Marie gulped down the water and felt a little more awake. She began chewing her food, and read.
The usual list of chores: go to the market, buy manioc and coupé coupé, make sure Jonas doesn’t stay out after sunset, feed him, and bathe him. Marie sighed. It was unfair. Jonas was old enough, but Mama demanded much less of him. He was out playing, probably disobeying Mama and hanging out with the worst urchins of the matitis. Marie would have to rush to make it to the market and be back, early enough to prepare dinner. The best manioc would be gone soon. And it was better not to buy leftover coupé coupé. Although the vendors denied it vehemently, rumors persisted that it was made of stray dogs.
It was a long walk to the marché Mont-Bouët. One step outside, and Marie felt the sun’s ferocious assault. Yet, life in the matitis went on, in utter defiance of the grueling temperature. Women gathered around the public well, exchanging the latest kongossa and collecting dirty water. Children, naked or covered in rags, played in the reddish sand. Thugs lingered at corners, carefully screening for opportunities. And beggars, broken and discarded, searched the trash for valuables or something to eat.
The unpaved road, leading out of the valley, inclined steadily. Marie rushed uphill, eager to gain time. The heavy, humid air filled her gasping lungs. She tried to ignore the sweat running into her eyes, the dirt that rose with every step, and her wheezing breath and racing pulse. But exhaustion prevailed. She stopped, resting the weight of her torso on her knees. She couldn’t go on at that pace. A shortcut was needed. Leaving the road behind, she cut through the narrow alleys, constantly ducking under heavily packed clotheslines, spanned between huts. At last, she reached the outskirts of the matitis, and the path to the paved road.
The trail was overgrown, and framed by dense thicket and trees. Marie hesitated. The territory before her was completely isolated. She could still change her mind and make it back to the road. Eventually, she exhaled her doubts in a long deep breath, and went ahead.
She listened carefully. There was no sound hinting any presence, human or otherwise. The huts behind her vanished gradually, until they were completely hidden from view. She accelerated, while focusing her eyes on the high grass before her, looking out for snakes. Then she heard the noise. Her head swiveled so quickly, she almost tripped.
The flare of the white sun blinded her. There was motion under a dead palm tree. A frail figure encroached towards her, unsteady, like a half-squashed insect. She wanted to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. She wanted to scream, but no sound left her mouth. Her eyes widened with terror, as the thing came closer.
Her vision adjusted, and her fear subsided somewhat. It was an old man, ravaged with polio. His upper body was bent over, almost horizontally resting on a pair of wooden crutches. His torso seemed strangely extended, and his buttock elevated. The man wore ragged clothes that reeked of sweat and urine.
His high-pitched voice was weak and feeble. “S’il vous plait? S’il vous plait?”
“What is it, Papa?” She attempted to hide her fear, but her voice betrayed her.
The man came closer. His eyes were blank and motionless. He was not only crippled, but also blind. And yet, Marie felt the impulse to turn and run. She knew it was silly. A blind cripple couldn’t possibly be dangerous. Besides, one had to respect the elders.
“Please do me a favor, ma petite.”
She winced. He would ask her for money. She would apologize and say she didn’t have enough. He would plead and insist. Eventually he would curse her, and spit at her.
But the man did no such thing. Instead, he produced a stained envelope. “Deliver this letter for me. It won’t take long, and they’ll give you 10,000 CFA. And it is not far from here. The directions are written on it.”
Marie took the envelope and read the handwriting. ROCHELLE, SARL. BLUE BUILDING.
“It’s a blue storage house, not far from here. Near the harbor,” the man continued.
“No, Papa. I can’t do that. I need to go to marché Mont-Bouët.” She tried to give the envelope back, but his hand didn’t rise.
“Please, ma petite. I can’t walk this far. I’m just a blind cripple. They paid me half the money for the delivery in advance. I took it. I needed to eat. But if they don’t get the letter, they’ll find me, and they’ll beat me.”
The man’s almost toothless mouth was strangely twisted, exposing his red gums. He looked as if he was about to cry. Marie felt pity, and revulsion, and guilt because of it. “I can’t,’ she said, “I really can’t.” It came out less firm than she’d intended.
“Please, ma petite. Have mercy.” And this time the tears came. The man cried, his whole body shaking.
It was unbearable. Marie wanted him to stop. Again, she felt the urge to turn and run. Again, her sense of decency made her resist. Perhaps she could do him the favor. It wasn’t too far from the market. She would only lose an hour. Jonas would eat a little later. Perhaps he wouldn’t even be home on time. Besides, Mama wouldn’t be angry. Not if she brought 10,000 CFA. “D’accord. I’ll do it,” she said.
“Oh, thank you. God bless you, ma petite. Be blessed for your kindness. It is so hard to find decency in Gabon. Young people, nowadays, are cruel and selfish…”
He went on. Marie nodded, regardless of the man’s inability to see it. She didn’t want to talk anymore.
“Au revoir, Papa,” she mumbled and went on. Behind her the man’s blessings of her continued. She trotted, despite the heat and the humidity. There was no time to lose. And she couldn’t wait to get away from here. The mumbling voice behind her vanished. But she sensed him standing there. Staring. It didn’t make sense, of course. The man was blind. The blind don’t stare. And still, she wouldn’t turn for fear to meet his dead gaze. Only when she’d made it uphill and set foot on the paved road, did her head pivot for one last glimpse. She saw him disappearing down the trail, back towards the matitis. He was running upright, his clutches under his arm. The blind cripple ran.
Lieutenant Antoine Ogoula sat on a bench by Bord de Mer. The ocean behind him offered a soothing breeze. But Ogoula didn’t notice. Nor did he pay any attention to the traffic in front of him. His mind was on Captain Yangari beside him, a flabby six-footer, with a neatly trimmed pencil mustache and empty, content eyes. Hot anger was building in the pit of Ogoula’s stomach. In all his years in the force he had never met a person as profoundly stupid as Michel Yangari. But Yangari had risen faster in the hierarchy. Ten years younger than Ogoula, he had quickly become his senior in rank. When you were the nephew of the Commissioner, not even near retardation could get in the way of your advancement. But then again, Ogoula had to admit that Yangari was a good fit for the Gabonese police. A born brownnoser, without any interest in actual law enforcement.
“How about this one?” Yangari asked, pointing at a grey SUV, which was in the process of completing a left turn, in utter disregard of the red light. The driver was young, barely 20.
“Use your brain,” Ogoula said, pointing at the blue license plate, issued for government employees. “Probably the kid of some grand type. You want his daddy to stop by the station?” Ogoula was annoyed. This was what he had to put up with every day.
A few, much too short, minutes passed before Yangari spoke again. “We need to get started, Antoine. Time to work. Let’s do a cab. There is no risk. How about this one?”
A white Toyota sedan, with red roof and red hood, approached. Ogoula sighed. Another taxi. The payoff would be minuscule.
“Let’s get him, Antoine. Let’s get him.” Yangari had smelled blood. It would take too much effort to hold him back now.
“Fine,” Ogoula said. “We do it, if you shut up.”
The two men rose from the bench and approached the street. Gesturing dramatically, Yangari signaled the driver to pull over. Ogoula remained silent, as Yangari demanded the papers. Few cab drivers in Libreville could meet this simple requirement. The taxi companies hired without background checks. But this fellow came prepared. Grinning, he handed Yangari his license and maintenance papers.
Yangari pretended to study the documents, frowning hard. “Fine, Monsieur. Now, would you open your trunk please?” he said.
The driver’s grin broadened, as he left the vehicle. He appeared ready to burst into laughter, as he observed Yangari clumsily inspecting the trunk, finding the spare tire, the toolbox, the warning triangle. Ogoula waited.
“Where’s the fire extinguisher?” Yangari asked, raising his voice.
The driver’s grin froze. “I don’t have…” I didn’t know…”
“How dare you operating this vehicle without a fire extinguisher on board,” Yangari screamed. “Have you read the driver’s handbook? Every vehicle must be equipped with a fire extinguisher.” He’d produced a worn-out booklet from his pocket, and waved it in front of the driver’s face. “You are a menace, a danger to public safety. I should confiscate this piece of junk, right now.” To underline his outrage, Yangari, slammed his palm on the roof of the car.
The spectacle went on a little longer. The driver stammered a few words to his defense, but it was no use. Eventually, he apologized and expressed his understanding for Yangari’s position. He would get the extinguisher right after his shift, if he could get a break—only this one time. In the meantime, he would be happy to give the officers a little tip to acknowledge their efforts and express gratitude for their leniency. Ogoula wasn’t surprised. In the end, they all came to the realization that it was better to lose a day’s wages, instead of the means to make a living.
The driver re-entered traffic, and Ogoula and Yangari returned to their bench. Yangari handed Ogoula his share, and Ogoula accepted. Once he’d possessed a strong sense of guilt. But over the years, it had become faint and weak, buried under thick layers of practical consideration. Ethics weren’t affordable with a policemen’s salary, especially if one had to support a family. And so, Ogoula ignored that feint bothersome feeling, and counted his share of the loot. That’s when the high-pitched voice erupted behind them.
“Officers! Officers, I need your help.”
“Goddamnit!” Yangari dropped his bundle of money on the ground. He jumped up, and ran—not unlike a startled chicken—after his CFA notes, which the wind threatened to carry away.
Ogoula turned to the girl. She was young, around 15. Her attire and her hairdo suggested that she was from the matitis. She was pretty, in an innocent, accessible way—her youth and looks not yet ravished by life in poverty. But most importantly, she was distraught. Incoherently, she kept babbling about a blind cripple running away.
“I don’t care,” Yangari said, out of breath. He had recovered the money. “How dare you sneak up on us like this.”
“But officers, something is wrong.” Marie had calmed herself a little. “The man pretended to be blind and crippled. And he wanted me to deliver this letter.”
Ogoula took the envelope. His eyes wandered across the handwriting, and came to a rest on the company name, ROCHELLE. The girl had his attention.
Yangari thought otherwise. “We don’t have time for your nonsense. We have work to do. Get out of here, before I kick your skinny ass.”
“Hold on, Michel,” Ogoula said. “Let’s hear what she has to say.”
On the way to the station, Marie detailed the story of her unsettling encounter. Ogoula felt strangely exhilarated. Here was a real case, actual police work. It felt right. He glimpsed at Yangari, whose sulking expression revealed fierce disagreement. And that felt good, too.
The petrol shortage had not spared the police. Most cruisers were out of gas. Few citizens believed it made any difference. At last, Ogoula found a vehicle with a half-empty tank, and they were headed for the storage house. A spiteful Yangari insisted that Marie accompanied them.
“What is it with this Rochelle company, anyway?” Yangari asked, on the road. “Who are those people?”
“Only the biggest restaurateurs in the country,” Ogoula said. “They own a couple of upscale restaurants in Libreville and Port-Gentil. They’re also catering at diplomatic events, minister inaugurations, and grand type parties. They even take care of the dining in the presidential palace. The old man, Jean-Luc Rochelle, came from France in the 1960s and has been close to the presidential family ever since. His son, Pierre, has been taking care of the Libreville operations in recent years.
“So why, the hell, would you want to bother them? Because of her?” He shot a disdainful glance towards Marie on the backseat.
Ogoula didn’t answer. Although dumb as a post, Yangari was smart enough to understand the fundamental principle of Gabonese public service conduct: never upset the rich and powerful. Ogoula knew the risks. It could end his career, or get him reassigned to some shitty village in the middle of nowhere. And there was always the possibility that they’d make an example of him, and single him out with corruption charges.
And yet, he felt compelled to press on. His persistence pissed off Yangari, and that alone was worth something. But there was more to it. People like the Rochelles didn’t associate with the likes of that girl. Although residing in the same country, the elite lived in another universe. How could there be any connection to the girl, or to some fake blind cripple? Something was wrong, and it had to be something big. Along with his suspicion, Ogoula sensed a chance. He could be a real cop, at last. He would rise above the meaninglessness of his existence. The inactivity, the boredom, the brownnosing, the corruption—he would leave all that behind. He would find out what was going on and expose it. After that, they would have no choice but notice him. No longer would he be overlooked. No longer would the likes of Yangari pass him by.
They arrived at the storage house—an isolated building by the side of the road. The façade was shabby and the blue paint was coming off. It looked quiet, almost abandoned. Only a black SUV around the corner hinted at the presence of someone.
Ogouala pulled in front of the entrance, and turned off the engine. Yangari opened the passenger’s door and got out. But not without addressing Marie first. “You better not get any ideas. You stay right where you are,” he said.
It was a futile remark. One look at the girl convinced Ogoula that she was much too frightened to leave the car. He stepped out and approached the entrance. There was a weathered sign above the door. Although barely readable, Ogoula could make out the name ROCHELLE.
He rang the bell. No answer. He rang again and knocked, with the same result.
“Nobody here,”Yangari said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Ogoula knocked again. “Police. Open the door.”
At last, there was a sound of movement from inside. Footsteps were approaching. Somebody unlocked the door. And then Ogoula found himself face to face with a white man in his late 30s.
Countless hours of security detail had exposed Ogoula to all the grandes types in the country, French or Gabonese. He had seen them calm and dignified in public as well as obnoxious and decadent, when they were among themselves. And although he had never expected to make his personal acquaintance, it only took him a second to recognize the man in front of him. The slicked back wavy hair, the soft spongy face, and the piercing blue eyes left no doubt. He was facing Pierre Rochelle.
“And what is it that I can do for you today, Officers?” Rochelle asked.
“We would like you to clarify a thing or two, Monsieur,” Ogoula said.
“Certainly. That is, if I can be of any help.”
“Are you expecting any mail today?” If the question made the Frenchman uncomfortable, he didn’t show it.
“Not that I’d be aware of it. You see, we usually don’t receive mail on Saturday afternoon.” He paused for a moment. “But say, why would the police take an interest in our correspondence?”
“We’ve learned that somebody was supposed to deliver a letter to you. The circumstances where somewhat unusual?”
“Well, that’s interesting,” said Rochelle, the faintest hint of a smirk playing around the corners of his mouth. “The circumstances must have been highly usual, if you’re willing to waste your time. Now let me compensate you for your efforts, so you didn’t make the trip for nothing.” Rochelle produced his wallet.
Ogoula wasn’t a flawless man. But even so, he felt irritating anger rising. That guy didn’t even try to be subtle in his bribery attempt. No probing, nor negotiating. Only cold arrogance. The man wanted to rid himself of an annoyance. And yet, Ogoula was almost surprised as he heard himself say “That won’t be necessary. I prefer clarifying the matter here and now.”
For the first time, Rochelle’s smooth façade showed cracks. His upper lip turned into a snarl at Ogoula’s tone. What followed was a look of genuine confusion, as he pocketed the wallet. “One would expect that you have better things to do, than following up on the delusional talk of some street person.”
“We certainly have,” Ogoula agreed. “If you just let us have a quick look around, we’ll be on our way.”
“Listen, I think I’ve been patient enough.” Ogoula noticed more signs of agitation. Rochelle voice had turned abrupt. His complexion darkened from a bashful pink to a shade of scarlet. “Now why don’t you be a good sport and dedicate yourself to more urgent matters. I believe that, this very moment, there are multitudes of cab drivers making Bord de Mer unsafe.
“Of course, Monsieur,” Yangai said. “We apologize for the inconvenience.” So far, he had followed the exchange open-mouthed. But now he seemed anxious to leave.
Ogoula ignored him. “I’d much rather discuss this crazy street person with you. Especially, since I didn’t mention anybody, and you seem to be so well informed.”
Rochelle’s complexion was almost purple now. A vein on his forehead protruded. “Careful, man. You’re digging your own grave. Do you know who my father is?”
“No…Do you?” An old line, but it still proved effective. Curiously, the most visceral reaction came from Yangari.
“Antoine,” he shouted, disbelief on his face. He grabbed Ogoula’s arm trying to lead him away. Ogoula shook off his hand. “Antoine let’s go, right now.” Yangari’s voice trembled. “I’m your superior, and I order you to leave.”
“Listen to your boss, Bamboula. I’ll go all the way up to the Minister of the Interior. Having your ass fired will be the least of your problems.” The vein on Rochelle’s forehead had grown into a throbbing earthworm.
“I suggest you call him,” Ogoula said.
There was nothing else to say. Ogoula and Rochelle eyeballed each other some more, until Rochelle turned and went inside. Ogoula waited, but not without keeping the door from slamming shut with his foot. He took a deep breath. His heartbeat slowed gradually. But his thoughts continued to race. It had been exciting. But it had felt good. Damn good. This white asshole had never seen it coming. For once, he’d felt like a real cop. But now the magnitude of the situation began to sink in. Had he just made the biggest mistake of his life? No, the whole situation smelled fishy. The guy, the place—everything felt wrong. And he, Antoine Ogoula, would expose it.
He tried to clear his head. It wasn’t easy to think straight, with all this noise around. Only then, did he realize that the noise came from Yangari. He’d been screaming nonstop. For how long? Seconds? Minutes? Yangari seemed devastated, close to crying. He babbled something about how he didn’t want any part in this, how he had always been against coming here, and how he, Ogoula, was just mean to drag him into this.
Ogoula was thinking of something to say, when the black SUV shot around the corner, and disappeared on the road. For a split-second, Ogoula could make out Rochelle’s defiant, hateful face behind the windshield. It seemed outrageous, incomprehensible. But Ogoula had to trust his own eyes: Pierre Rochelle was running from the police.
Ogoula entered the building. What else could he do? Obtain a warrant? This wasn’t a movie. Nobody in Gabon served or respected search warrants. And so Ogoula made his decision, gathered his courage, and entered. Yangari stayed behind.
He walked down a long dimly-lit corridor. Ogoula’s hand rested on the holster attached to his hip, touching the gun he had never fired on duty. The thunderous sound of his own heartbeat was in his ears, he proceeded towards a door at the end of the corridor.
Ogoula grabbed the handle and pushed the door open. A wave of icy air hit him. He shuddered. Of course, they were in the food industry. This had to be the cold storage area. His hand was searching for the light switch. There was none. A weak emergency light was flickering across the room. A staircase led down. Ogoula took an empty trash bin and blocked the entrance door with it. Then he descended into the freezing darkness.
The emergency light illuminated an exit door. The light switch was probably in that area. Infinitesimally slowly, he worked his way across the room, staying close to the wall, using his hands to identify obstacles. Ogoula stepped around a large refrigerator, slowly advancing towards the door. What was he doing? Refrigerators contained light. Ogoula went back and opened the door.
He deeply inhaled a vast gulp of cold air. For a moment, his mind refused to accept the sight his eyes imposed. His whole body went rigid. He stood and stared. The human head staring back had once belonged to a man—a young man, in his early twenties. The eyes were wide open and the mouth twisted, preserving the victim’s final agony.
Ogoula exhaled. He’d been holding his breath long enough to feel lightheaded. A wave of nausea took hold of him. Icy sweat ran down his forehead. He forced himself to breath calmly—in and out, in and out. It helped a little. The nausea subsided, and his head cleared up. Enough to hear the footsteps approaching from behind.
Ogoula jerked around, his handgun out of the holster. Yangari didn’t notice the gun. His eyes were resting on the severed head, but he seemed unable to comprehend what he saw. Then, after his brain had managed to process the sight, Yangari screamed. It was an inhuman, bone-chilling scream that sickened Ogoula and would stay with him forever.
Ogoula found a light-switch, at last. Although his sanity protested, the view was too abhorrent to be disbelieved. The corpses were hanging upside-down from the ceiling, slowly swinging back and forth, icy puddles of frozen blood below them. There was about a dozen of them. Men. Women. Most of them seemed young, in their teens or twenties—an age when the meat is still tender. The carcasses were in different stages of preparation. Some were still intact, save the shaved head and body hair. Others had been further processed. With skilled perfection, the flesh had been cleanly sliced off. Some had their buttocks, thighs, or biceps missing—cleanly separated from the bones. The ribcages of others were cracked and torn open. A few were without heads.
Ogoula thought of the all the parents, and siblings who had come to the station, desperately pleading to find missing youths that would never turn up. How many had found their way here?
Then he understood. The clear and cold truth came to him—more devastating than the carnage before his eyes. A new horror took hold of Ogoula, from the mind crushing knowledge that could never be unknown again. What he had uncovered wouldn’t change one damn thing. There would be no arrests. The Rochelles wouldn’t even face charges. And he, Ogoula, wouldn’t be promoted. There would be no hero’s parade. After what he had seen, chances were that he wouldn’t live long enough to tell many people about it.
What lay before him wasn’t the work of a madman. It was the product of an industry. The French diplomats, the Gabonese politicians, the grands types and grandes dames, the presidential family—they were craving for meat, craving for Rochelle’s fine dining. The matitis were the hunting ground, full of prey, waiting to be devoured. What lay before him was no aberration. Life in Gabon was in order.
Marie couldn’t take it any longer. She wanted to go—anywhere, as long as it was far away from this place. Something evil was happening here, and Marie wanted no part of it. The policemen had entered the building soon after the white man had rushed away. The older officer had entered first, hesitant and nervous. The younger officer had followed, appearing outright terrified. How long had it been? She had lost all sense of time. What if they wouldn’t come back? What if they were dead? What was going on?
Then she noticed the letter. This cursed letter, she wished she’d never received. The policemen had left it on the dashboard. Marie hesitated. But she needed answers. Why had the old man chosen her? Had it been coincidence? Would she ever feel safe again?
With trembling hands, Marie reached for the envelope. She opened it, and unfolded a sheet of paper. A single line was scribbled on it. THIS IS MY LAST DELIVERY FOR TODAY.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Alexander Schuhr 2017
Bio: Alexander Schuhr is an author, essayist, and scholar. He was born and raised in Munich (Germany). Before coming to the United States, he used to live in various countries in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. He writes fiction and creative nonfiction. He has a wife and a three-year old daughter.