A romantic mystery novel by Frederic Hunter
[Order it at www.JossNovel.com in paper or e-book]
Synopsis: An American journalist based in South Africa, Tom Craig, journeys to the small country of Malawi, ostensibly to cover a string of murders purportedly committed by a leopard. In fact, he wants to reconnect with the newly appointed American ambassador’s wife, Jocelyn (Joss) Hazen. He had a passionate affair with her eight years before and has never quite gotten over it. That’s something he does not bother to mention to Maggie, a free-lance pilot with whom he’s living in Johannesburg.
What’s so special about Joss? Here’s how Tom describes her. “If Jocelyn is consummately beautiful, she is also consummately perverse, the most difficult, the most damnably vexing woman I have ever met. But she gets away with it.”
It will not be easy to be alone with Joss in a place where an American ambassador’s wife is a celebrity. Especially when, having suffered an accident, she’s in a fragile state. When they meet at a party, Tom realizes she doesn’t recognize him. But hold on! Is she really Joss? Or an impostor who resembles her?
Tom has to know. And if she’s an impostor, what happened to Joss?
Attention Santa Barbarans:
Fred will do a book reading and signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore Thursday, April 26, at 7:00 pm. Save the date!
Free sample complete Chapter One
Joss: The Ambassador’s Wife
by Frederic Hunter
© 2012 Frederic Hunter
Malawi is green and unspeakably beautiful. Its small mountains rise unexpectedly off the plains. Its sunsets grab the breath right out of your lungs. Its length stretches more than five hundred miles in the deep trough of Africa’s Rift Valley, but at no point is it more than one hundred miles wide. The country nestles against a long, narrow body of water, the southernmost of the Rift Valley lakes, achingly lovely, known in colonial times as Lake Nyasa, but more commonly now as Lake Malawi. On maps the country and the lake look like longtime lovers snuggling spoons in an embrace that never ends.
If that image seems tender, what is happening right now in Malawi is not: a string of twenty-plus murders. They will intrigue readers of mine in California who do not even know that Malawi exists. Foreign correspondents like to believe that they do serious journalism. But they know that a good murder story garners more readers than reports of diplomatic negotiations or summit meetings. And this murder story is a good one because the murders are committed by a leopard. Yes, a leopard. Or perhaps a leopard-man. That ambiguity makes the story worth a visit, especially since, afterwards, I am headed north to Kenya to do the wildlife situationers that my editors ask for every year or so.
A story that will fascinate readers is not my only reason for going to Malawi. Another reason is a woman: Jocelyn—known to me as Joss—the wife of the American ambassador.
On the flight up to Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, I spend almost the entire trip thinking about Joss. I take out photos I’ve slipped into an envelope in my typewriter case. There is one, taken two years before, of the two of us standing before a bookstall on the Left Bank of the Seine. It was a turbulent time in Paris—students were rioting—and not only there. America appeared to be tearing itself apart. Opposition to the Vietnam War had caused Lyndon Johnson to declare that he would not run for re-election. Assassins had killed both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. But that was not our business. We were two people who wanted to shut out the world and be together. Joss succeeded in concocting some reason for a trip away from her family and we spent a week together, moving inside a cocoon of passionate self-absorption. That trip caused me trouble with my editors at the Big Guy—I have always thought of my paper as the Big Guy in California—because they did not want me on vacation just then and I went anyway. Looking at the photos—there were others of us when we were first together in East Africa—I have no regrets, even if we ended that week in Paris agreeing never to meet again.
I’ve also brought the latest of the family photos that Joss and Max send out at Christmas. Joss has scissored Max out of the pictures and so I see only her and Pepper, their daughter. These photos arrive folded into a note that never says more than “Miss you—Merry Christmas!” And if Joss seems never to change, Pepper, who looks to be a great, bright, grinning kid, gets a little bigger each year.
Putting the photos away, I wonder how I go about contacting Joss once I arrive in Blantyre. I muse about simply calling the ambassador’s residence. In my ruminatings, Joss answers the phone. The minute I hear her voice, I break into smiles. “Joss,” I say, “is that you?”
In my mind’s eye I see her shiny dark hair falling across the earpiece of the phone and her lips at the mouthpiece. She says, “Tommy! You in town?”
“When can I see you?”
“Darling, when we last said goodbye, you claimed you’d never—”
“A man can change his mind. I have to see you.”
“I heard you were living with someone in Joburg. Not burning the candle at both ends, are you?”
“I hear you’re living with an ambassador. Pretty pleased with yourself, huh?”
“You at the Mount Soche?” she asks. “I could probably slip away for an afternoon.”
So we set up something for tomorrow afternoon—which means a couple of hours of the best lovemaking I’ve ever had—and I think about how beautiful every part of her is. But she rings off; someone is coming who may overhear us. Part of the pleasure of this game we play is that it has to be clandestine, furtive, our passion a secret we share.
Once this fantasy passes, I know our meeting can be nothing so simple. Joss is now the newly arrived American ambassador’s wife. Everywhere she goes in Blantyre, her identity will be known. No slipping into a hotel for an afternoon of love. I wonder if this predicament amuses Maxwell Hazen. Joss, so it is said, has had many lovers. As has Max. They make each other aware of these indiscretions. Private misbehavior seems to provide them a way to keep in touch. Joss has told me that she and Max argue ferociously about these affairs. The unique aspect of our involvement, Joss assures me, is that our off-and-on affair is a secret we’ve kept to ourselves. Joss swears she has let Max know nothing about it. That means we have a singular attachment, a special love. Despite my journalist’s skepticism, I hope this is true. But in a place like Blantyre, the American ambassador and his wife have a kind of celebrity status. I wonder how they’re bearing the scrutiny. It will be a matter of crucial importance to Max, now that he has achieved an ambassadorship, that their reputations not be tarnished. So Joss cannot come to the hotel to see me. I’ll have to find some way to gain access to the residence.
By great good luck I have a pal in Malawi to help me with tips and contacts. The first thing I do, once I’ve rented a Land Cruiser at the airport and checked into the Mount Soche Hotel, is to seek out a run-down section of Blantyre. Here the Land Cruiser jounces over potholes. Urchins and bystanders watch the vehicle pass, the urchins wondering if they will ever ride in so fine a chariot. I park on a commercial street full of shops run by East Asians, where buildings, some wood, some stucco, badly need paint. There are decaying office blocks with dark hallways and the stairwells smelling always of piss and rooms with dirty windows sparsely furnished where little work is done. I lock the vehicle and check all the doors. I greet the urchins, some who hang back, others who approach me for handouts, and give two of the biggest of them coins and instructions to keep my property safe. Then I head toward a storefront over which hangs a sign: BLANTYRE STAR Your Eye on Malawi – Subscribe Today.
The dimly lit newsroom contains half a dozen desks. Most are piled with newspapers. There are two phones and three ancient typewriters. Two men work at layout sheets. They wave in greeting as I enter. I make my way to the dark back of the room where an African sits at a stool pulled up to a desk in a slouch I know well. He hunts-and-pecks at a standard-model typewriter. I sneak up and cork him on the shoulder. “All lies!” I tell him.
He turns to look at me, then brings a hand up to protect his eyes. “Oh, the whiteness! The whiteness! It hurts my eyes to look at you, my friend.” He stands to cork me with the hand not shielding his eyes and we clasp our right hands, grab each other’s thumbs and give one another friendly shoves.
This man is Bakili with whom I worked for a time on Nairobi’s Daily Nation—and for African wages. In those days Bakili hoped to parlay his presence in Nairobi into some kind of overseas training in America, Britain, or even Germany. We often ate dinner together—there was a curry place called the Three Bells where the food was good and cheap—and Bakili would try out on me his stratagems for going overseas. As a young man with a job and some money, Bakili was a magnet for girls. He introduced me to those who were daring enough to be seen with an American paleface. We would go on excursions in a beat-up Volkswagen bug I rented from a place called Odd Jobs in Muindi Mbingu Street. We took girls out to watch animals at the Nairobi Game Park and up to Lake Nakuru to see the flamingoes, to visit Karen Blixen’s house at Ngong, to watch the planes take off and land at Embakasi. One weekend we rented a small house in Mombasa and took two nurses-in-training down to the Indian Ocean coast. Since neither girl wanted to be stuck all weekend with the white guy, in the middle of the night they switched beds. Bakili and I had three joyful nights going to bed holding onto one nurse and waking up holding onto the other.
Alas! all of Bakili’s overseas plans failed. Eventually his father called him home, wanting him present at Malawi’s independence celebrations. In addition, he announced it was time for Bakili to marry and perpetuate the clan. Furthermore, his father said, he had found just the woman for him. So Bakili left Nairobi. He married the woman his father had chosen. She lives up-country—there is a lot of up-country in Malawi—tending his farm and raising their two children while he holds down a money-economy job in Blantyre.
Bakili gazes at me and shakes his head. “You hear there’s a leopard-man on the loose,” he accuses, “and you run up here to write that we are savages.”
“But you are savages!” I tell him. “To show you what a generous albino I am, I’ll buy you dinner.”
“To pick my brain!”
“That takes ten seconds.”
I take him out for a quick beer and ask his assessment of the stories I may pursue. Bakili reports on President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s plottings to become president for life and hints that the leopard-man killings are a reaction to his putting a stranglehold on access to the presidency. “This,” he says, “is not the way the so-called democratic forms we inherited from the Brits are supposed to work.”
When I urge him to tell me more, he laughs. “Would I deprive you of the opportunity to ply your trade, to chat up bigwigs in interviews? Not a chance of it.” He does, however, give me the name of an African anthropologist who teaches at the country’s best secondary school. Despite the risk in talking to me, this man may be able to provide an anthropological perspective on the leopard-man killings.
When I ask about possible American government aid to the President’s project to move the national capital from the south to Lilongwe in the Central Province, Bakili, who is no admirer of Banda, claims a national capital at Lilongwe is simply the latest scheme to put money into the old man’s pockets. He checks to see if anyone overhears our conversation. Even when no one seems to, he lowers his voice when he says the word “Kamuzu.”
I ask if the new American ambassador is pushing the development scheme. Bakili’s info—from what sources I have no idea—is that the American dollars are designed to wean Malawi from the orbit of South Africa’s apartheid regime while keeping it firmly anti-communist. “My hunch,” he says, “is that American capital is positioning itself to take over the South African mines if there’s a race war down there.”
Then he grins at me. “Feed me dinner some other night,” he says. “There’s a party tonight at my place. Want a girl while you’re here?”
“I might if your taste in women were bett—”
“My taste in women,” he interrupts, “is superb.” When I shake my head at this, he says, “I have a town wife now as well as the one up-country. You’ll see my taste in women.”
“Insatiable!” I exclaim. “That’s what your taste in women is.” We laugh together and he tells me he has to get back. Believe it or not, he’s on deadline. He writes down the name of the anthropologist and his address on a sheet in the notebook he always carries, tears it out and gives it to me.
I ask him, “How’s the new American ambassador?”
“Manipulates the”—he lowers his voice—“dictator like a puppet.” He adds in a normal tone, “He doesn’t talk to folks like me.”
“And his wife,” I ask. “What’s she like?”
“They keep her under wraps. The kid, too. They think we’ll contaminate them.” He grins and shoves me in the chest. “I am ready to party! See you tonight! Bring a bottle.”
If anyone might know that I’ve had a relationship with the new American ambassador’s wife, it would be Bakili. Because I met Joss on the terrace of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel, a place where we used to drink at night after work. But she walked into my life after Bakili returned to Malawi.
The Norfolk is a famous hostlery from the colonial days, just across the road from what is now the University of Nairobi. Wild tales hold that colonials used to ride their horses onto the bar terrace and even into the dining room. But when I was at the Daily Nation, the clientele was generally young professionals, maybe some students and professors and the predictable clusters of tourists. That particular night in 1962, eight years ago, we were drinking and munching the hamburgers that were necessary to lure tourists. We were a mixed group of riff-raff: some African students, playing at doing homework, two of us from the Nation and a couple of Brits, born in Kenya, one bearded, the clean-shaven one with an African girlfriend. Out of nowhere a slim young woman in a tee shirt and shorts, backpack and hiking boots, entered the terrace from the road. She stood looking around. Her black hair was cut short then and she wore no make-up, not even lipstick. She glanced around the terrace, swung the pack off her back and, grabbing it, walked over to us. “Mind if I join you?” she asked. “You’re the only crowd out here who looks as disreputable as I do.”
“What do you say, chaps?” asked the bearded Brit. “Do we really look as disreputable as all that?” But he quickly stood—as did I and the other Kenya-born Brit—because of course we wanted this plainly beautiful woman to glorify our table. We opened up space and reached for chairs. Since I was closest to her, I took the backpack, grabbed her wrist and ushered her into a chair beside me.
“Glad to have you join us,” I told her. “I’m Tom.”
She said, “You’re an American. I can hear it in your voice.”
“I am,” I said. “But I’ve been here long enough to feel Kenyan.”
She put her hand on my arm and smiled and leaned forward to kiss my cheek. The others applauded. “Kiss us all, lassie!” cried the bearded Brit.
“She only kisses fellow-countrymen,” I shouted as we sat down. I signaled a waiter and ordered a beer and a burger for her.
She leaned close to me. “I’ve been in West Africa, speaking French,” she told me. “I haven’t heard American English in I-don’t-know-how-long.” She reached out her hand and we shook. “I’m Jocelyn,” she said. “Joss.”
I assumed she was a student. Possibly an anthropology grad student as I had been not long before. I felt a kinship with her. We stayed with the others for a couple of hours, talking and drinking. When the circle broke up, it was after midnight. As we left the terrace, the pack on her back again, she asked me, “Do you know a cheap place where I could stay? I can’t afford the tab here.
I was surprised. “You have no place to stay?” I asked.
She shook her head and grinned. And I grinned back at her.
In those days my lodgings were a single room at the back of an Asian store in Bazaar Street. I entered from the rear. The room had a washbasin in one corner and a small refrigerator in another. My clothes hung on nails and hangers beneath a shelf where I’d stacked underwear and books. The double bed was unmade and, as I brought Joss into the room and looked at it, I wondered how long it had been since I’d washed the sheets.
I’d gotten a straight-back chair—a towel was hanging over it to dry—and a cheap but sturdy wooden table I used as a desk. On it were a lamp and piles of reference books and newspapers next to my two most valuable possessions: my Olivetti portable typewriter and Grundig short-wave radio. Stacks of books stood like mini-Stonehenges on the floor throughout the room. The door was ajar to a small compartment attached to the room. It was almost large enough—but not quite—to house the toilet and the telephone-shower that were in it. There was a drain in the floor and I sometimes showered standing on the toilet. I always left the door open, hoping to dry the place out.
“Will I knock over books if I set this down?” Joss asked.
I took the backpack from her and set it on the chair. “Now you know what the room of a freelance journalist looks like.”
“I’ve always wondered,” she said.
“You’re welcome to stay.”
She looked at me gratefully. It was a kind of magical moment that went on and on without really taking any time at all. Then she kissed me, very fully. “Do you mind if I take a shower?” she asked.
“I may even have a second towel,” I said, pulling a dry towel from the shelf next to the underwear. Giving it to her, I took hold of her hand. I wanted to kiss her again. “I won’t be long,” she promised.
While she showered, I turned off the overhead light and got into bed, wondering what would happen. The lamp on the table was the only illumination. When she left the shower, she came into the room to dry off. I pretended to be asleep—she must have known I wasn’t—and narrowly opened my eyes to watch her polish her body. After a moment I sat up. “You’re incredibly beautiful,” I said. I watched her buff herself dry. She smiled at me, without a trace of self-consciousness. Then she folded the towel over the chair, turned off the lamp and came to bed. We kissed again and she asked, “Why are you wearing shorts?”
We were together for more than a month, making love with the frequency of honeymooners. I could not quite believe what was happening to me: that a woman of intelligence and loveliness would walk out of the night in a tie-dyed tee shirt, shorts and hiking boots and expand my existence, enhance my emotions, in a way I had never dreamed possible.
At the end of our time together we went camping on the Serengeti plains. That was like being Adam and Eve at the beginning of the world. Adam and Eve lived in the moment. They did not worry about the past or future and neither did we. I knew, of course, that Joss had a life – probably a grad student’s life – before she appeared on the Norfolk Hotel terrace that night. But I did not ask her about it. We lived with an immediacy that did not worry about tomorrow. I went to work during the days. I picked up free-lance stories when they floated by. At night I was with Joss. We did Nairobi and we made love. On the weekends we went camping.
Sometimes I would watch her. I would think she might be – or had been – three or four different women. I wondered if I would recognize any of them if I bumped into them on the road up ahead. Would I meet her at a party somewhere in the future and wonder who she was? If I came on to her and we connected again, would we realize we’d been lovers?
When we camped, we slept on plains so abundant with wildlife that we had no fear of being attacked by predators. Who would want to eat us when a juicy little Thompson’s gazelle was so easy to catch? We slept, wound about each other, in the same sleeping bag. We woke at dawn to watch zebras and gnus, gazelles and waterbuck, topi and kudu, Cape buffalo, lions and elephants come to a water hole to drink. When they had drunk their fill, we would wriggle out of our bag and bathe in the cool morning air, as naked and as unconscious of our nakedness, as the animals themselves.
Eventually I got a request from a paper for which I served as a stringer. It asked me to provide dispatches from southern Africa. This was an opportunity I longed for. It might lead to a staff position and end my hand-to-mouth existence as a stringer. One night while we were camping on an enormous plain dotted with kopjes, rock hillocks, I told Joss about it. Our campfire was the only man-made illumination for hundreds of square miles. Having eaten, we sat close to one another, our backs against a log, sipping wine, watching the stars. I said, “One of my papers wants some coverage from South Africa. I have to go down there for a while next week.”
“What is it?” she asked. “An audition?”
“Maybe.” I held my breath, then plunged ahead. “Want to come along?” She looked at me as if I were joking. “Why not?” I said.
For what seemed forever she did not speak. Finally she said, “You should know: I’m married.”
The words stunned me. I did not move. I sipped my wine and finally said, “Come anyway. I’m not prejudiced against married women.”
In the silence that followed I could not believe what we were discussing. She was married? I had been making love daily to another man’s wife? I had been feeling my emotions expanding, growing toward a possible commitment… And she was married! Finally I looked over at her. Joss said nothing, staring sadly into her glass of wine.
Finally I asked, “Does he know you’re here?”
Joss shook her head.
“Does he know you—?”
“He plays around all the time,” she said. “He knows I hate it. That’s why he does it.” Then she added, “And I do it to him because he hates it.”
I nodded. But I had never heard of such a relationship.
“It’s strange,” she said. “We love each other too much to divorce. And hate each other too much to be happy.”
I felt like railing at her, giving her hellfire-and-damnation. But in Kenya such things were not done by the people I knew. In Nairobi no one ever took a high moral tone with a friend.
“We think a baby will make a difference,” Joss said. “So that’s the plan.”
I smiled at this and looked at her a long moment. I put my arm about her and kissed her sweetly as if kissing her goodbye. In the morning we drove back to Nairobi and I got her a room at the Norfolk.
After leaving Bakili, I drive into the center of town and stop at the American Cultural Center to see the Public Affairs Officer, the Embassy’s public face. He’s Bill Sykes, a fellow Californian by origin, maybe forty-five, tall, with the ready smile of a man who wants to be liked. He invites me into his office and pours two cups of coffee from a burbling coffee maker. It sits on a bookshelf below one of several large National Parks posters with the logo “See America!” written across them. Scanning the posters, I realize that, beating around Africa for ten years, I’ve seen more of it than I have of my own country. Sykes hands me a cup of coffee. “Ever been to Malawi before?” he asks, gesturing to a chair and settling in behind his desk. “Can’t be much here to interest a newsman.”
“I’ll do a situationer,” I tell him, “and they’ll bury it next to ads for panty hose.”
“Can I make that sweeter?” Sykes asks. He opens his bottom desk drawer and pulls from it a bottle of whiskey. He sweetens both coffees. “The Assistant Secretary of State for Africa’s arriving in about ten days.”
“Lilongwe project?” I ask.
He nods. “Anything for you in that?”
I shrug, reluctant to tell him that while the Assistant Secretary’s visit is an-all-hands-to-battle-stations deal for him, it’s a yawner for my readers. I pass it off and Sykes shrugs. He replaces the bottle and relaxes into his desk chair, his feet on a drawer. “Any chance of my seeing the Ambassador today?” I ask.
“He’s tied up this afternoon,” Sykes tells me. I wonder if it’s true or if every interview has to be negotiated. Probably I should have set up the appointment from Joburg, but I didn’t want Joss to hear from her husband I was arriving.
Sykes asks, “Wandering Africa the way you do, you ever run into Hazen?”
“Once in Morocco. Rabat. You’re sure he couldn’t fit me in today?”
“A doctor’s seeing his daughter,” Sykes explains. “He wants to be there.”
“What’s wrong with his daughter?”
I think: What? The kid I met a bit over two years ago in Morocco seemed well adjusted. In any case, children tend to adjust easily.
Sykes adds, “I guess the flight down here from Europe really got to her. She had to fly down unaccompanied. She’s been under a doctor’s care ever since. Malawi can do that to you.”
“The kid flew down here alone?”
“Hazen hated to have that happen. But there was no other choice.” Sykes continues, “The Hazens have really had a rough go. Mrs. Hazen was in an auto accident in Europe. She’s had extensive reconstructive surgery.”
I am stunned. An image of her face swims into my mind. Such a beauty! I wonder how reconstructive surgery has altered her face. Then out of nowhere my mind sees the image of a car wreck I came upon in southern France some years ago: a small sports car mangled beside a road lined with poplars. I see the body I saw then: a young man lying beside the car, face cut, bloody. Oh, Joss!
Then I hear Sykes saying, “We all admire the way Hazen attends to her. But it’s put the kid in a tailspin.” I ask about the care she’s getting. “An African doctor’s treating her,” says Sykes.
“Mrs. Hazen’s under the care of an African doctor?”
“No, the child. He’s a guy who trained in the States.” My expression telegraphs what I’m thinking. Sykes shrugs as if he agrees. “Hazen says we oughtn’t to be out here if we scorn the people we serve,” Sykes explains. “Well, maybe. But if she were my kid, I’d get her the hell of out here.” Then he adds, “But I’m not bucking to be Secretary of State. That’s off the record, of course.”
Sykes walks me to the Land Cruiser and I ask what my chances are of seeing the President. “Let us handle that for you,” he says. That’s a surprise. Usually I set that sort of thing up directly with the President’s office. Why would I go through Hazen? That way I’m beholden to him. Sykes explains, “Hazen can probably get you in. You won’t see the President otherwise.”
Well, well, I think. I wonder if I believe that.
“Old Kamuzu admires the fact that Hazen really knows Africa,” Sykes says. “He understands that they’re good for each other. If Malawi progresses so will Hazen. And vice versa. So the President trusts him.”
“And to see the President,” I ask, “I have to see Hazen first? Is that the game?”
“Hazen’s walking on eggs,” Sykes says. “He wants to do good—as well as make good. This Lilongwe involvement is just being finalized. First American money in ages. President doesn’t want any bad press.”
I have the feeling that Sykes is offering me a deal that I don’t think I like. He and I take each other’s measure.
“If we got you in to see Kamuzu,” says Sykes, “would you do a piece on U.S. money helping Malawi? Africa moving forward? That sort of thing?”
I shrug. There’s no use telling him I don’t work that way—because I may have to. “The leopard-man murders will get a lot more play in my paper,” I tell him.
“How about laying off that? It just reinforces stereotypes about Africa.”
“You know, you won’t get positive foreign press out of here as long as a leopard-man keeps killing government ministers.”
Sykes nods ruefully. “Then maybe no coverage is the best kind,” he says. “Malawi needs that Lilongwe project.” Then he promises to set up something with Hazen and says he’ll call the hotel.
He watches me drive off. I turn the corner and pull off the road. I lean against the steering wheel and put my head in my hands. I ask, Joss, Joss! My beauty! What in God’s name has happened to you?