Inspector Gloria Sirleaf was tired and sad but mostly angry, very angry. She stared at the body laid out in front of her. A teenager, dressed in showy but cheap clothes, lying on his side as if asleep, except for the pool of blood around his neck and head.
'His throat was cut ma'am. We haven't touched anything.' Ambrose straightened up and looked at her questioningly. When she didn't speak he added, a little nervously, 'Ma'am, the time.' He pointed at his watch in case she might not understand what he had said. 'It's just the curfew is in twenty minutes.'
Gloria nodded. The curfew. The government's belated attempt to stall the ebola virus which had taken hold of the city, decimating the poorest communities and producing a volatile mix of fear and anger.
'Take the photos first and then see if you can find a body bag.' She watched wearily as Ambrose took the pictures and then together they carefully rolled the body onto its back. When she straightened up and wiped the sweat from her eyes, Gloria saw two things. Firstly she recognised this boy and secondly she saw the huge nail, driven through his palm, fixing him to the wooden pallette. She groaned. 'Ayayayayay.' No dignity, even in death. 'Ok Ambrose, get someone else down here now. I'll call the chief to get us a pass. The curfew is going to meet us right here I'm afraid.'
Ambrose just nodded. 'But who will I call ma'am? The captain is in quarantine, Izena and two of the others have not been in to work for a week now. Maybe Alfred?'
'No, you know what, call Clementine. She actually knows this boy too from her social work days.'
The last six weeks had been a nightmare. The ebola had swept in like a spark in dry grass and caught them unawares. Hundreds had died, others were abandoned in their homes, whole areas of the city had been placed under quarantine and then finally the Ebola Treatment Depots, or ETD's, had been set up and then quickly discredited. Enter To Die was the new Monrovia interpretation of the acronym, feeding the fear that once someone went in they were never seen again. Normal life had come to a standstill with schools, markets and offices closed – except for murder, it seemed. There it was business as usual.
Gloria bent over the body trying to remember the boy's name.
'Ronaldo.' She turned and saw Clementine staring at the body.
'Ronaldo, that's it. He was in the centre that day. But how did you get here so fast.'
Clementine spoke softly. 'Oh, I was at the children's shelter along there.' She shook her head. 'Ach, as if this ebola thing is not killing us enough we have to kill each other.' She bent in closer. 'And his hand?'
'Yes, the nail, some crazy –’
'Not the nail Gloria. Look,’ she pointed and Gloria looked in closer, 'his finger's been hacked off.'
Gloria felt her stomach heave. 'Sorry Clementine, you knew him better than me. He must have really upset someone.'
Clementine nodded. Only the shake in her voice gave her feelings away. 'That's the thing Gloria. I do know him and he was doing well. He's not a rogue.' She looked back at Gloria. 'You got him a job, don't you remember?'
'Me? Don't think so Clementine. A job?'
'That organisation you started, with the footballer, Abraham Kanneh. Remember?'
Gloria nodded. She had persuaded AK, as he was known locally, to do some work with the street kids. 'But jobs?'
'Gloria honestly, you've never been back have you?'
'Well, it's been busy, you know killings, abductions, that sort of thing.'
Clementine nodded slowly. 'Yeah, I know. Anyway your friend AK has really worked at it, got his friends in to do different things with the kids and managed to get some of them jobs. This poor pekin here got work in a clinic, cleaning and carrying. Look at the clothes. For the first time in his life he bought some clothes for himself.'
They both stared a while until Ambrose came back. 'Ma'am, we need to try and move the body or we will be stuck here all night. I've got one of the bags, but there's nowhere to take him.' True. All the main hospitals were closed and there were no morgue facilities anywhere. 'Maybe we'll just need to put him on the ebola truck when it comes around.'
Gloria hesitated then shook her head. 'No, you know what. That's not what we're going to do. He didn't die of ebola, he was murdered and we need to remember that. My uncle –’
‘Ah, the funeral home?' Ambrose had dealt with Gloria's uncle before.
'Yes. He'll do it. You stay here and wait for him. Oh, he will definitely come', she added seeing Ambrose's uncertainty. 'Funeral cars are still allowed out during curfew.'
'Which clinic was he working in?' Clementine and Gloria were in her car. Driving at night was easier these days. The curfew which had been resisted at the beginning was now observed very strictly. People were scared to go out even in the day, only venturing into the streets to look for food or for news of relatives or friends trapped in the now infamous quarantine zones, or who had disappeared into the ebola containment centres.
Clementine thought for a while. 'I think he was in that one way to Gardnersville. The Martyrs something or other... I don't know the full name.'
'No, I know it, The Precious Blood Martyrs. Named after the nuns who were killed out there. Well if he was there, that's one of Sr Margaret's places.' Gloria looked at her watch. 'We could go and ask her. If you have the time?'
Clementine sucked her teeth loudly. 'Time! Well what else am I going to do except go and sit home and wait for more phone calls about who has died. Let's go – if you can find the way.'
The streets were very dark. 'So, no power in this whole town now eh? Government people, I swear our whole country messed up now,' said Clementine. The only light was from the fires burning in the huge oil drums at the military checkpoints which were on every crossroad. The fires cast eerie shadows on the masked soldiers who lifted the barriers to let them through. And on the piles of bodies abandoned at street corners –
even after all the resources which had poured in the government still couldn't cope with the death rate and terrified people, after calling the ebola collection teams with no result, were leaving their relatives’ corpses on the streets.
'Close the window,’ said Gloria, ‘and put your mask back on.' They had arrived at the convent and after some negotiation the watchmen opened the gates and let them in.
Sr. Margaret, who even after thirty years in Liberia had lost none of her North American drawl, listened to their story, shaking her head. 'What! As if there isn't enough misery right now. Poor child. Right, you need to speak to Lucy.'
Gloria raised an eyebrow. 'That volunteer girl?"
Margaret smiled. 'Yes Gloria one of my volunteers. Come on, she's not so bad. I couldn't do all this work without these people.'
Gloria shrugged. She had been at a party where the said Lucy, 23 years old and six months in Liberia, had been holding forth on Liberia's problems and, very helpfully, outlining the solutions. After just six months! 'We agree to disagree on that Margaret but where is she anyway?'
Margaret laughed loudly. 'I'll get her.'
Lucy Whitton was a tall bony young woman with a loud voice, an earnest expression and a rather flat accent Gloria found quite difficult to listen to.
'Hello Inspector. How can I help you?'
Gloria outlined the story while Lucy nodded slowly, as if she had heard it all before.
'Oh, that is terrible, the poor child. Yes, he worked at the clinic and he was doing fine.'
'Any enemies, anyone he had a confusion with?'
'Oh we don't have confusions at our clinics Inspector, I make sure of that.' She smiled smugly.
Gloria winced. 'Yes, I'm sure you do. But did you see anything?'
'Well Inspector you'll know better than me', meaning the opposite of course, 'but he was probably robbed for his money or his mobile or something. It's very rough out there.'
Gloria nodded. 'Well I don't know about where you come from Lucy, but our rogues don't usually nail people's hands to the floor or cut their fingers off.'
Lucy looked unmoved. 'Things happen Inspector. Maybe he upset somebody.'
'That finger thing though Gloria, that's strange,’ said Clementine. ‘Why that finger?'
'Seems obvious to me,' Lucy jumped back in. 'He had been rude to someone, you know, given them the finger. That's what that middle finger is for, isn't it.' She laughed.
'So that's why they cut it off?'
'Yes, seems obvious to me.' Lucy repeated her phrase and leant back, problem solved.
'Well Liberia is not always as obvious as people think you know.' Gloria stood up. 'That particular finger means something different to us.' She looked at Clementine. 'What's the thing you can't do without a middle finger?'
Clementine smiled at her. 'The Liberian handshake.'
Sr Margaret was nodding. 'That's what I was thinking. Nothing to do with being rude. If you don't have a middle finger you can't do the click that every Liberian finishes a handshake with.'
'The sign that you are free – well, that's what they taught us at Burning Bush Elementary.' Clementine was talking slowly now, looking at Lucy. 'People used to cut off the middle fingers of their slaves so even if they ran away they would always be recognised as a slave. So when the settlers came here, the next generation anyway, they made a big thing of having that finger by making the click at every handshake. Being able to do the click handshake is a sign you are free.'
There was a silence. Gloria nodded her head as she spoke. 'So not just an act of violence, but a message.' Clementine groaned.
'Well Clementine that's what it looks like. Seems obvious to me.' They all laughed then, briefly, except Lucy who looked disapproving.
'You are all laughing and a child has been murdered. I don't understand this country at all.'
'Truest thing you've said so far.' Gloria got to her feet. 'We had better get going though. We'll come to the clinic in the morning, and talk to your staff there.'
'Well.’ Lucy looked at Gloria and Margaret as if waiting for Margaret to speak. Margaret remained silent. 'I won't actually be here tomorrow. I'm leaving, you know with the ebola and everything.'
Gloria shrugged. Many people had left. She understood that. 'But why now? Most people left weeks ago?'
'Ah well I had to stay and show some people around so...'
'You mean reporters?' Gloria guessed.
Lucy nodded. 'And the film crew. All very important publicity for the country Inspector.'
Gloria frowned. 'Oh, you the one showed them around eh? I saw their piece. Thirty minutes long and not a single Liberian was invited to speak on it. Hmm, proud of it were you?'
Lucy stood up now too and actually tossed her hair back. 'Really Inspector, the important thing was to get the message out there and I think it achieved that.'
Gloria was weary. She shook her head and went to the door.
'Whose message though Lucy eh? You that's been here a few months, or the people who actually live here. Liberians have got their own voice you know, their own opinions. We are not just background for your adventures. And Ronaldo? A boy that worked at your clinic. What did he think of the ebola crisis eh? Any ideas if he was worried about anything or anyone? No. I didn't think so.'
Lucy had gone a bright shade of red and her fists were clenched. 'You –‘
he was almost snarling, 'Africanus said you would say stuff like that – ' She stopped short. The room was silent now, all eyes on her.
'Africanus.' Gloria repeated the name slowly. 'Africanus Varley?'
Any doubts that Lucy was referring to the powerful man Gloria had almost managed to bring to justice for murder were dispelled at the sight of Lucy backing towards the door.
Sr Margaret stood up too. 'Lucy? What's been going on? Wait –' She put her hand on the door to physically stop Lucy from leaving.
'I have to go and pack. I've nothing else to say here.' She was actually trying to open the door, forcing Margaret to push harder on it.
'You need to sit down and talk to us. Now.'
'I don't need to talk to anybody. My contract finished today.' Lucy laughed. 'So, arrest me.'
Gloria was stunned. 'What! Tha you talking to us like that. Arrest you eh. I will give you one good slap my dear, that's what I'll do.'
Lucy had quickly regained her composure. She knew she was on firm ground here. There was nothing Gloria could do without her cooperation. Dragging some white woman down to the police headquarters and risk exposing her to ebola infection was not a risk even Gloria would take. She sat back down and folded her arms.
'Alright I'll tell you. A month after I started work here a man brought a child to the clinic. The child had been hurt while cutting grass with one of those machetes. We treated him and after a few days the man was back with another child and we treated him. So – ‘ They were all silent, staring at her, 'that's all that happened. We treated the children and then one day Africanus came to the clinic to tell us thank you for the good work. He asked if we needed anything. I talked about some drugs we didn't have, he said he could get them for us and,’ she waved her hands in the air a little, 'that was it. No big deal.'
It was Margaret's turn to be angry now. And she was. 'So, you've been taking drugs or money or whatever from this man, for the clinic and you never thought to tell me?'
'You people are all the same. Africanus told me what you would say. Small people, that's what he called you all, small. You all want to control everything.’
'You stupid, stupid woman.' Gloria was still standing. Even with the ceiling fans on full the room was hot and she could feel the sweat on her back and face. 'You have no idea what you've got into here, no idea at all.'
'What do you mean?'
'Let me tell you. A child is murdered and it turns out that Africanus Varley is a frequent visitor and benefactor to his place of work? Oh there's a connection alright, a connection you made possible.'
Neither Margaret or Clementine attempted to slow Gloria down. They looked at Lucy. But she had closed down by the looks of it, arms folded, mouth set in a narrow line and defiance in her eyes.
There was a silence and then Gloria spoke quietly. 'OK, you leaving tomorrow, I can't really stop you.' Lucy nodded, sensing victory. 'So we need to go to the clinic tonight.'
Lucy looked stunned. 'Tonight? We can't go all the way to Gardnersville tonight.'
Gloria looked at Clementine. 'Can we?'
Clementine smiled. 'Of course we can Inspector.' She looked at Lucy. 'We've got a spare mask, you'll be alright.'
'No, I mean the checkpoints and...'
'Ebola? Don't worry, you'll be safe in the car... I think.'
Five minutes later they were back on the dark road. In 'normal time', as people referred to both pre-war and now pre-ebola Liberia, a trip to Gardnersville, even at night, could take you forty minutes. With only a few sleepy checkpoints to negotiate they reached the area in twenty. Lucy hadn't spoken a word except in protest when Clementine, on Gloria's orders, had taken her phone.
According to the call list she had been dialling a local number with the name of Big Daddy. Gloria and Clementine exchanged looks. Big Daddy! Really! She wondered if the pompous Africanus knew how he was listed in her phone. But more worryingly, how close had Lucy got to this man?
The Martyrs clinic was in darkness, the gates wide open.
'You not supposed to have someone on the gates?' Clementine turned around in the car to find Lucy staring anxiously ahead.
'What, of course there should be... two people. The place should be locked up. Maybe we –’
'Oh don't you worry we will be fine. You stay in the car if you are worried.' Gloria was already out the car and heading to the clinic porch.' Although if there is anyone around the car might not... '
I'm coming.' Lucy was scrambling out the car and making for her.
The flashlight showed the front door had been forced open and a trail of broken glass led to the main office where the door had just been kicked in. There were papers everywhere.
Gloria turned to Lucy. 'I just need to see the files on all the children Varley sent here. This,’ she indicated the mess, 'doesn't concern me.'
Lucy looked shocked. 'But how could this happen? I don't understand.'
'What? You mean with Africanus Varley protecting you? Eh? You will learn what Big Daddy's protection means girl.' Gloria was furious. 'Che, can you find the files?'
But Lucy was obviously in shock. She was shaking a little in the light from the torch.
'The files,' Gloria hissed in her ear.
But twenty minutes later they decided it was a waste of time. Lucy identified several empty files as ones connected to the children who had been treated at the clinic. They got back in the car.
'Listen Lucy, if Africanus Varley has sent people to take these files, then you must know something bad is going on here. Is there anything else you can tell us, anything at all? What about the people who brought these children in, what did they say?'
Lucy seemed to have gone into complete shock. It was one extreme or the other, Gloria thought. She sat staring out the window into the dark. 'I want to go home. Please.'
'You will go home Lucy, but first you have to help us.' Clementine was speaking slowly and carefully. 'Just think back. Before you got to know Varley , what did you make of the injuries?’
'Well at first it seemed strange. The boys, they were all boys, all had injuries which looked more like machine injuries, not machete cut or nicks, you know we get plenty of those. But you know I was new here.' Gloria made a face but said nothing. 'I mentioned it to the head nurse and the next thing Africanus was in my office. He explained it all and then –'
‘Who brought the children in? You said it was a man, which man? What was his name?'
'Oh, he wasn't really a man. A big boy I suppose. Actually,’ she frowned, 'now I think on it, it was someone Ronaldo knew. Cyrus, I think, yes, Cyrus something or other. Big ears and his front teeth missing.'
Clementine shouted. 'Cyrus the Virus. I know him.'
Even Gloria looked a bit shocked. 'Clementine!'
'No, that's his name Gloria. He was one of the first to catch the ebola, he was sent into the quarantine centre and, one of those miracles, he recovered. Nobody knew why he recovered but after that the other children started calling him Cyrus the Virus.’ She smiled, 'You know the kids now.'
'So where can we find him?'
'Benson Street.' Clementine was absolutely sure. 'They all still live around there. If he's not there the others will know where he is.'
'Ok, let's go.' Gloria started the car.
Lucy groaned. 'No please, no more places. Just take me back.'
'Sorry, is not possible right now. I swear on this one I will find out what happened to Ronaldo.'
Gloria's phone rang while they were on their way. 'Ma'am.' Ambrose sounded excited. 'Ma'am, I managed to get old Dr. Grant to come and look at the body. He says the boy was still alive when they nailed him to the wood.' Gloria winced. 'But, while he was examining it, he found a paper in the boys mouth, chewed as if he was trying to swallow it.'
'Good. What was on it?'
'It's hard to read but it looks like a shopping list, you know biscuits, chocolate, chicken soup... '
'A shopping list?' Gloria repeated as she slowed down at another checkpoint. 'Well, maybe he was just chewing some paper when the people caught him. Chocolate, biscuits... what exactly does it say?'
She heard him say biscuit pack just as she was turning into Benson Street. 'Ok, ok Ambrose I will talk to you later. Good work though.' She turned off the lights outside the St Luke Shelter. 'I didn't know the place was still open Clementine.'
'What to do. Where else the children going to go?'
'Well I'm not going in there.' Lucy had her arms folded defiantly.
Gloria shrugged. 'Tha your business. You could even walk home from here.' She closed the door, furious. This woman had shown no feelings for anyone except herself.
The shelter was dark except for a few lanterns but Gloria noticed the buckets of water at the doors and the soap. Inside was so hot and noisy that she didn't think she would last too long. Clementine, on the other hand, was walking with great authority among the mats on the floor. Gloria for once just followed behind her. 'Is this safe Clementine?'
Clementine looked around. 'We have masks Gloria if you want to wear one but the children are checked for symptoms every morning and evening...'
'I didn't mean us Clementine, I meant the children.'
'Oh sorry-ooh.' Clementine laughed. 'Well, we do what we can. It's hard to know what the impact is, the children come and go so often.' She was approaching a tall gangly man who was, rather incongruously, sitting behind a desk in the corner.
'Robert.’ They shook hands and then perched uneasily on two wobbly chairs. 'How are things going?'
'What to do. We have seventy-three in here tonight. All with their hands washed,’ he added quickly, 'and ready to eat.' He indicated the piles of bread on the table behind him. 'It'll get a bit quieter then for a few seconds and then they'll sleep... or run away outside.' He looked weary to the point of death. 'We have no real control over them and it gets so hot in here that sometimes it is impossible to sleep.'
'Oh yes, I can feel that.' Gloria was sweating profusely, the hand towel she carried a complete waste of time against the torrent pouring from her forehead. 'We just need to ask you about one of the boys. Cyrus the... ' Gloria couldn't quite bring herself to say it.
'Virus? What about him? Haven't seen him in days. It's hard to keep track but I don't think he's been around here for a while.' He rubbed his face wearily. 'Truth is, I finish trying to keep track of the children... it's just not possible.' He shrugged and stood up. 'It's food time here Inspector. If the children come here, we feed them and advise them but otherwise... I mean whole families are disappearing into those ebola centres, people are dying in their houses with no-one helping so these kids of course... who is going to bother about them, eh?' He looked her full in the face. 'Yeah, exactly, nobody.'
They got up too. 'Oh but one thing I remember, that boy changed this last few weeks.' He lifted the pan of bread. 'He used to be quite helpful, talking with the younger ones but the last few weeks, I don't know, he was getting money from somewhere, quite a lot of money, and was just coming here to bluff around. Then he stopped coming. Happens all the time.'
They left him marshalling an army of children to line up for their nightly rations and went back to the car. 'He's there on his own?'
Clementine just nodded. 'He started working here a few months ago, or less, just before the ebola started, no, just after it started. A lot of the staff have just stopped coming to work and some have died of course, so the people at St Luke's are struggling like everyone else. This Robert man seems to be here all the time.'
'Impressive, or crazy!' Gloria started the car. 'Let’s call it a day.' She looked in the back seat. 'Where's that woman gone?'
'Ah, who knows? Let's just go. She must have walked back to the convent.' There was no-one standing on the street and the convent was just around the corner.
'I suppose.' Gloria was a little uneasy. 'But she was so scared.'
'Scared? She was mixing with Africanus Varley, Gloria. Let's just check then on our way home.'
They caught up with Lucy at the convent gates. She barely acknowledged them, obviously still furious.
They were both exhausted and the short drive to Clementine's house was in silence. 'Tomorrow then.' Gloria nodded. Tomorrow was almost here.
For some reason, the drive to police headquarters the next morning cheered Gloria up. Just the sight of some people on the road, even if they were wearing plastic bags on their hands and makeshift masks over their mouths, and some buying and selling at the small markets, even if hesitant and cautious, was a taste of real life and it made her feel better.
The office was quiet. It was always quiet these days. Like everywhere, people were missing, some stayed at home, and some just never came back. Some you heard about, others just completely disappeared. On an impulse, she called Moses. She checked the calendar. Her captain had been in quarantine with his two children for sixteen days, and his gruff voice reported still no symptoms, just complete boredom. She told him about the boy and he perked up.
'So Romeo was killed why?'
'It's Ronaldo, not Romeo. But why he was killed? That's one of the things we don't know.'
She could almost hear him thinking. 'But if they cut off his finger to show he was, you know, a slave, not a free person, then the nail through the hand sounds like torture to me. So, I'm just thinking here Gloria, it sounds as if Ronaldo had some information which someone wanted. Someone like Africanus Varley?'
'Yes I know, but what information?'
'Come on boss. You've got Varley sending children with wounds to a clinic and then a boy from the clinic is tortured and killed. Seems obvious to me. He was back up to his old tricks again.'
'By tricks you mean torture, murder?'
'You know! You need the files on those children and you need to find Cyrus the Virus. I'm sure he's connected.'
Gloria agreed. It did seem obvious. Just what was Varley up to this time though? 'Well, glad to see the brain is still working Moses. It won't be long now.'
'Listen boss. Please, please, I beg you be careful. If Africanus Varley is involved you are in serious danger here. He hates you.'
Gloria sighed wearily. 'I know he does, but Moses if you had seen the body of that boy last night... Anyway, I promise to be very careful.'
He snorted. 'Hmm, you and Clementine running around town chasing him and avoiding ebola. How careful can you be?'
Gloria looked up to see Clementine in the door. 'Two of the boys from St. Lukes came to see me early this morning. They heard us talking last night.' She perched on the edge of Gloria's crowded desk. 'Cyrus used to come to their place all the time, talking with the children there and then each time he left some of the children wouldn't come around anymore.'
'What does that mean?'
'Well what do you think Glo? Varley was using the boy to get children from the shelter for whatever... Ronaldo recognised them when they were brought to the clinic, probably said something and got himself killed.'
'But for what?'
'Well, we'll find that out. Must be something really bad when they killed Ronaldo for it. Torture, witchcraft – who knows with that man. From what you say it could be anything, anything bad that is.'
Gloria nodded and stood up. Action. She needed action to counteract the gritty tiredness that threatened her every time she sat down. 'So, we need to find Cyrus, that's the priority. He's the link?'
'If he's still alive... '
'The kids you spoke to, don't they know where to find him?'
Clementine looked a bit embarrassed. 'I never asked them. I was just thinking about those pekins from the shelter, wondering what happened to them.'
'Of course, fine, you are still more social worker than police officer Clementine, I get that.' She tried for a smile but the frustration about a possible missed opportunity was too much for her. She grabbed her keys. 'Come on let's go and see if we can find them. It's our best lead.'
They didn't have to go far. The children were on the road heading to the police station.
'Old ma, you mun come-ooh, the people carrying Cyrus.' The bigger of the two was excited and shouting. 'They carrying him now now.'
'Where they carrying him? Who?' Clementine was out the car now.
'The truck taking him to the Enter To Die place.' He pointed vaguely in the direction of one of the ebola treatment centres.
'But how? He hasn't got ebola, he can't get it now.'
'Get back in Clementine. Now.' Gloria was already revving up. 'The pekins don't know nothing else. Come on, let's go.' She was off driving before Clementine had closed the door.
The truck was parked outside the Methodist Church compound and several old ladies and a man in a clerical collar were being loaded into the back while people stood around crying. Gloria was out and heading for it with Clementine in hot pursuit.
'Gloria, what you going to do? You know it is an offence to interfere with these people.'
'An offence?' Gloria was still running, 'And, as far as I know, it is still an offence to kidnap and kill people.' She accosted the driver with her badge. 'You have someone in the truck who should not be there.'
The driver looked at her with no expression. 'You know how many times I been hearing that today sister? Eh? Just every time I stop.'
'No look, this is not a special plea for someone, please I beg you a crime is being committed here. A boy... '
The driver cut her off. 'A boy? Hmmm, in this truck today I have the son of the deputy Minister for something or other, two catholic nuns, a midwife, three business people... so, a boy?'
And that summed it up. A child was of no account today.
Gloria knew she was not going to win this one, not here anyway. 'Ok, let me see the papers.'
'The papers man, sheets with the people’s names on.'
'Well you know... ‘ but Gloria had opened the truck door and grabbed the papers scattered on the front seat. She ignored his protests while scanning the lists, it must be near the end surely.
'Clementine, what's his real name?'
'Vambo. Cyrus Vambo.'
And there it was, the very last name, scribbled on and dated today. Beside it the name of the reporting medical person, although it looked as if it had been written in a great hurry, was clear enough. Lucy Whitton.
Gloria threw the papers back at the man.
'The wicked woman. Ah! Clementine, let's go.' Clementine was staring at the back of the truck where a few faces, sad but resigned, could be seen through the wooden slats. She pulled herself away and got back in the car.
As they were driving off Gloria explained about the signature. Clementine gasped.
'What! Come see wickedness eh! That is too terrible. She knows he is not infected but she's sending him to that place.' There was a silence. 'I thought she was just a stupid woman. Where are we going now anyway?'
'We are going to the airfield, my dear, that's where. Someone I need to see.'
Their second screeching stop of the day was just outside the small Departures building. Spriggs Payne airfield was only used for cargo, private flights and, these days, to airlift Aid workers. A group of them were standing in line as the last checks were being done. Lucy Whitton was on the steps of the plane when Gloria, flashing her badge at frequent intervals, got through the crowd and shouted up to her.
'Hey you, I need to talk with you.' Lucy said something to the tall man at her side and carried on walking upwards. Ignoring Gloria was not a good choice. She indicated Lucy to the airport security.
'I have reason to believe that ¬¬¬woman may be infected with the ebola, deadly ebola virus', it was always prefixed with deadly these days, 'so I need this flight stopped.'
The waiting passengers groaned and a small man who hadn't reached the first step of the plane yet, burst into tears. Lucy had also heard. 'Are you crazy? I haven't got ebola. We are all medical people, we know the signs of ebola.'
'Yes, contact with someone who has the virus is very risky behaviour right?'
'Yes, but we don't have that kind of contact.'
'Exactly. Get down here, now.' Lucy Whitton hurried down now muttering something about sorting this out. She was bright red in the hot sun and tried to stare Gloria down.
'What is this about?' Her accent was even flatter now. 'What are you trying to do?'
'You had contact with a suspected ebola patient less than three hours ago. You should not be travelling.'
'No, I did not. I didn't .' She looked round at her colleagues ranged along the hot tarmac and on the steps of the plane. 'This is complete nonsense.'
'Well your signature is on this transfer form recommending that one Cyrus Vambo be taken to an ebola treatment centre immediately as, by your medical judgement, he was in the advanced stages of ebola and a danger to everyone.' Gloria held the blank paper close to her face, pretending to read in the glare of the sun.
Lucy suddenly went quiet. 'Well we have to be very careful, I mean he has the symptoms.'
'So you signed him into the treatment centre after examining him. Which means you, and all these good people, might be infected too. So no-one can leave.'
Lucy paused and then sighed resignedly. 'Alright, we can't be infected.' She raised her voice. 'Because he hasn't got ebola, there I've said it, ok?'
There was a collective intake of breath from the passengers.
Gloria was nodding. 'He hasn't got ebola but you signed him into a treatment centre. Well that's very, very interesting. We need to talk a bit more. Let's go.'
'But, but, my flight, my bags.' Lucy kept looking back as if waiting for her colleagues to come and rescue her, but their backs were firmly turned now.
Gloria shrugged. Those things were not her concern.
Whether it was the hope that might still catch her flight out the country Gloria wasn't sure but at the station Lucy suddenly became very cooperative.
'Look, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that, ok. I know it was wrong but Cyrus wasn't going to be harmed. He's had ebola, he can't catch it again. It was just as a favour to...'
'BIg Daddy?' Gloria didn't think it was possible for Lucy's skin to get any redder, but it did.
'That was just a bit of fun. Africanus told me Cyrus was trying to cause trouble for him. He told me you people don't like him and are always trying to get him, and that if Cyrus continued with the crazy stories he was telling Ronaldo, we would all be in trouble. I didn't know what else to do, you have to believe me.'
'What else did he ask you to do. Cover up for him killing Ronaldo?'
Lucy looked genuinely shocked this time. 'Killing? No, no, he had nothing to do with that. Why would he kill him? With Cyrus off the scene there were no more stories.'
Gloria shook her head. No doubt some of this was true but this wasn't the whole story. The problem was, she could tell that Lucy actually believed it. She thought she had bent the rules, badly bent them mind you, but just that. The story didn't add up.
'So where are the children's files then?' Clementine spoke for the first time.
Lucy hesitated, looking between Gloria and Clementine, but the hesitation was enough to tell them she knew where they were. 'Yes, the files. No way you were going to leave those files behind, despite your play acting last night at the clinic.’ Gloria spoke with great assurance. Lucy looked between them again but Gloria saw her hand hover instinctively over her shoulder bag. She leant forward and took the strap.
'Thank you.' Before Lucy even had time to protest, the bag was open and a pile of slim brown folders spilled onto the table.
In silence, Gloria opened the top one and read that Abel Saryon, aged ten, had been brought to the clinic with cuts and serious skin burns on his hands, face and legs. He had been treated and sent back. In the box asking for any physical characteristics, it listed, as did all the others, the middle finger on his right hand missing.
Gloria could feel her rage rising. This woman had conspired to allow children to be brutalised. 'Burns, fingers missing? None of this struck you as being odd? Eh? Or you were so taken with Africanus Varley that nothing else mattered?'
'No, not at all. He told me that removing a finger was a tribal tradition.' Clementine snorted. 'He did, he said it was something some tribes practised here.'
'Really? A tribal practice eh? You really learned plenty here didn't you? And the burns? What about them?'
Lucy had started to cry. 'He explained it was the children being careless with the chemicals, I mean he was treating them wasn't he? He said they would be fine.'
But Gloria had heard enough. Chemicals. 'Where were these children working then?'
Lucy shrugged. 'He never said. I have no idea. I think that's what Cyrus was trying to tell people, he was the only one who knew.'
'And he was going to tell Ronaldo so he could do something about it. And Ronaldo got killed for it. Jeez.' Gloria banged the table.
And then it clicked. 'Wait a minute. Clementine, maybe he did tell Ronaldo, and Ronaldo told us.'
Clementine looked puzzled. 'Told us. But he was dead.'
'The paper in his mouth.' Gloria was heading for the door. 'Chicken Soup, Biscuits, Chocolate... what are they?'
Clementine looked puzzled. 'Shopping items –’
'No, no don't think shopping, think places.'
Clementine frowned and then smiled. 'Of course, they are all places in the city. Chocolate City, Chicken Soup Factory, Biscuit Factory. In fact, they are all areas around Gardnersville, near the clinic.'
Gloria was nodding too. 'Exactly. And you know what else they've got.' She looked at Clementine expectantly. She pointed at the children's files.
'Disused factories.' Since the civil war most of industrial Monrovia had lain derelict, buildings looted, owners killed or gone abroad. It seemed so obvious now.
'So whatever he is getting those children to make, I bet it's in those buildings.'
Three minutes later Gloria was calling Ambrose as they drove to Gardnersville.
'So he got Cyrus to bring him children, basically made them into slaves and then used them for whatever it was they were making and –'
'Got rid of them I suppose. That would be his style.' Gloria banged the steering wheel. 'Unless we get there in time.'
The factory at Biscuit Factory had actually produced biscuits in its day but was in ruins now. It had clearly not been used for anything for a very long time. At almost the same time, Ambrose called from Chocolate City with the same story. A ruined building with no signs of life.
Ten minutes later they were standing outside the large Chicken Soup Factory building and ten minutes after that it was all over. Africanus had been sitting in an office at the back of the building. The main factory floor was filled with tubs of some steaming liquid that made their eyes water as soon as they went in. A handful of children were now sitting outside on the grass. Not more than ten.
Africanus Varley looked exasperated, nothing more. 'I do believe you are harassing me Inspector.'
Gloria was beyond words. Only her belief that she had finally caught this man, and that he couldn't escape her this time, kept her from strangling him with her bare hands. Instead she kept very calm, remembering the contempt he had for women in positions of authority.
'It might be worth giving us some information you know.'
Varney just smiled. 'I thought you had all the information you needed Inspector? What could I possibly tell you?'
'Well, you could tell us what you did with the other children, why you killed Ronaldo? That would be a start?'
He sat up in the chair and stared at Gloria. 'Are you serious, really? That is the best you could come up with?' Then he threw back his head and laughed. 'And I thought you knew what you were doing. The famous Inspector Gloria.'
Gloria and Clementine looked at each other. Arrogance and contempt they had expected, but not laughter. What had they missed?
Still laughing, Africanus opened a drawer in an old filing cabinet behind him. He threw a pile of papers onto the desk. 'See for yourself. For me, this was purely a business arrangement. No pleasure.'
Gloria lifted the top paper. It was a simple contract with the name of the child at the top and the agreement they would work for Africanus Varley and any money they made would be kept for them by their guardian. Signed or fingerprinted by the child, and by their guardian. The same guardian on every contract: Robert Varley.
It took a few moments for Gloria to realise what she was reading, and it was Clementine's exclamation that finally penetrated the fog in her brain. Robert, the dedicated, overworked manager of the St Luke's Shelter, was the one behind all this?
'Relative of yours eh?' Gloria stood up and shouted for Ambrose and the team. 'Well, you are just as guilty and I will make sure... '
'You will make sure of what Inspector? I entered into a legal agreement with these children's guardian, a distant relative of mine true, but so what? That's all I know. I even treated them when they got sick. But you will know that from my friend Lucy... '
And cutting their fingers off to mark them as your slaves? How does that work?'
Varley wrinkled his nose. 'I told Robert that was too dramatic but he liked it. Everyone has their own ways, Inspector. Robert enjoys pain.'
'So where are the other children?' Gloria was shouting now. 'The ones too sick from these chemicals to do any more work for you.'
He shrugged. 'I don't know for sure. When they couldn't work anymore, I returned them to their owner. That's his responsibility. But I’m sure he wouldn't want them hanging around drawing attention to themselves.'
'He sends them into the ebola centres.'
'Ooh, good one Inspector. Where do you think I got the idea from? The only difference being that, unlike that boy Cyrus, those other children will not be getting out of there I don't think. Most of them were weak and hungry, not good conditions to fight off ebola. And such a neat way to deal with a problem.'
Gloria grabbed the papers and started making calls reading out lists of names to health officials at the Ministries and the International Medical Corps who were coordinating the ebola response. Some people believed her, some didn't. Some were concerned, most of them sounded weary and overwhelmed. But from all of them the answer was the same. Nothing could be done. Ebola was all-consuming. People were dying in their homes, locked in rooms to avoid infecting family members. Parents had watched their children disappear into the ebola centres, husbands, wives... the list went on. There were vague promises about trying to track the children down but in a tidal wave of fear and death a few more children were hardly going to be noticed. That was just reality in the time of ebola.
Later, with two Varleys in jail, for now anyway, Gloria and Clementine stood at the top of a hill outside Monrovia and stared down at the pile of burning bodies. It was like a scene from hell. The fiery corpses lighting up the dark sky while the white-suited and helmeted workers, like avenging angels, emptied the trucks throwing still more bodies into the flames. The only difference was the silence. In her memories of childhood sermons about hell and damnation, it had always been a noisy place, filled with the screams of tormented souls. But here, in post-war Liberia, hell was silent except for the crackle of flames. The last farewells, the rituals of parting and love were denied to family and friends. People died alone, and were disposed of quickly and anonymously at sites like these around the capital.
Gloria turned to Clementine and removed her mask. 'It feels like the end. People are saying ebola is worse than the war you know. At least in the war you could see fighters and rebels, hear a rocket coming, but with ebola, nothing. But worse than that, it has become the cover for the perfect crime. We know there are innocent children in there who will die and then the evidence will be burnt. What is going to be left of us when ebola finally finishes?'
Clementine looked at her and then briefly touched her arm. 'What is always left Gloria, the people, the children, the Struggle!' She managed a small smile.
Gloria smiled back wearily while shaking her head. 'Oh yes, that's not going anywhere.' And then into the silence of the scene she whispered the phrase they had grown up with, 'In the cause of the people.'
There was a pause and Gloria thought she heard the response coming to her on the night breeze, 'The Struggle continues...'
She shook her head. It was time to get some sleep, if sleep would come.