It is an unexplained phenomenon, that the easiest time for something to go wrong is when you least need it. You hold your breath and cross your fingers, praying that nothing goes wrong. All seems to be going well, and you seem to be pulling through. And when you are just grazing the finish line, when you are anticipating the breath starting to make its way out, right at that moment is when something finally gives, and you are left to count your wounds and start again.
At the moment when Jason was walking from the assembly ground, his face downcast and his phone vibrating discreetly, irritatingly, in his pocket, a new but nondescript black Mercedes was making its best speed along Waiyaki Way in Nairobi.Sitting in its back seat were two men. The elderly one was called General Katana. He was wearing a black designer suit, the buttons undone. His face was a mask of dismay. He looked out of the tinted window at the vehicles, streets, buildings and people flashing by. He cursed tightly under his breath, cursed his luck. At that moment, he could only ask himself one question; why now of all times?
Now one month shy of seventy-five, General Katana had lived a life in the shadows. By its very nature, his job demanded it. Katana was the head of the NSIS. The National Security Intelligence Service, previously known as the National Intelligence Service (NIS), is the Kenyan government’s intelligence gathering arm. Under its domain falls the task of gathering both local and international intelligence, from protecting important people within Kenya, to investigating major international drug circles. As such, it has a wider jurisdiction than most intelligence agencies worldwide, enjoying powers otherwise reserved for other agencies elsewhere in the world. But unlike most of the major intelligence bodies in many countries, the NSIS has managed to stay well within the shadows. It features little in the news, and when it does, it never stays. Many Kenyans have heard of it, but few really know anything about it beyond its name, which most don’t even remember.
General Katana had been in the NSIS for twelve years. He had served the governments of two presidents already, and had now done two years under President James. They had been good years, and he had made a name for himself as the cunning fox of Kenya’s security services, loved and hated by many in equal measure.
But that morning, all he could think of his reputation was how easy it was to blot out. That’s why he was cursing under his breath.General Katana was nearing his retirement. In fact, ‘nearing’ isn’t exactly the word. He could smell it, touch it just a little way beyond his reach. It was grazing his outstretched fingers. He could hear the sound of the ocean roaring as it crashed onto the cliffs in his native Kilifi County. He could see the palms swaying and dancing in the briskbreeze. He could see himself lying on his back on the white sand. In his mind, he went over the fruitful stint he had had at the NSIS. He would have had an honourable retirement, without a glitch in his record.
Then the president’s plane crashed. And suddenly, his entire world turned on his head. Now he had one more assignment to complete before he retired.The pressure had already started coming in. People were crying foul. It was now up to General Katana to reveal who was behind the plane crash, and fast. To make matters worse, he knew this would now be the defining moment of his career, and thatwhat his reputation hinged on how he was going to handle the moment. All of a sudden, his entire past of nabbing the bad guys was wiped clean. The past was a worthless to his future now. He looked out at the flashing trees again, and they elicited a thought of the palms swaying on the beach on the beach. Again, he cursed under his breath.
Five minutes later, the car pulled up in front of a nondescript gate in a posh neighborhood of the city. After a routine check by an ordinary-looking guard from one of the security companies, it drove into the compound. Two hundred metres into the compound, the car underwent another check, this one more stringent and done by mean looking men with earpieces stuck to their ears.
But General Katana, by virtue of his position, got through much faster than anyone else would have. Soon, he was walking briskly along a white walled corridor, his footsteps clicking on the shiny tiled floor. The entire corridor was lit white, without much in the way of ornamentation, not even potted plants. No windows opened from the corridor. But at intervals, there were wooden doors, none of which was open. Some of them had tags on them, but most were plain and drab, choosing to keep their secrets to themselves. Mingling with General Katana’s footsteps were three more sets of footsteps. Behind him, an angular mean-faced man with a thick neck and huge arms which threatened to burst out of the sleeves of atight black coat pounded the floor with his heavy steps. He seemed aloof from all happenings around him.His name was JuliusWanyama. He was known inside the NSIS as ‘Mnyama’. The play on his name, meaning ‘The Animal’, also signified other things about him. For although he was officially General Katana’s bodyguard, situations had risen not once before in which he had had to serve other purposes.Beside the general on the left, his personal assistant walked, his feet silently tapping the floor, carrying in his arms a grey folder with neat sheets of paper inside.
On General Katana’s right walked his number-two. The Deputy-Director of the NSIS, David Otieno, was explaining something to his boss.Had the accident waited just one month, David would have landed the unenviable task ofhandling the fallout. As he explained to his director about the high probability that a bomb had caused the crash, General Katana could only envy him. He was building a case for himself, so that if they ever succeeded in deciphering the mystery, they would both get the credit. Well, Katana would get more, but David would at least share in the bliss, boost his image. But if they failed, then the disrepute would be solely his, and David would still go on to become the director with a clean slate.
They came to a door near the end of the corridor. There were no markings on it. George, Katana’s PA, produced a card from his folder, stuck it into the slot on the door and waited for it to beep. When it did, he pulled out the card, placed his thump on the scanner beside the slot. A green light played on it. A second later, the door swung by itself inwards, and the four men stepped through it, Julius bringing the rear.
The place they were in was a longer than it was wide, but just small enough not to be called a hall. In the middle of the room, occupying a significant chunk of the length, was a wooden table with a shiny top. Chairs were arranged along all sides, six along the long sides, two on the short end nearest the door, and one on the other end. In front of each chair was a screen protruding from the table. The chairs themselves were occupied by men and women in sharp black suits without exception. Heads of departments within the spy organization and their assistants only turned slightly to acknowledge the entrance of the director. Three seats were vacant; the solitary one at the head of the table, meant for the director, and the two along the side nearest to it.
General Katana and his entourage walked to the other end. He straightened his coat, secured one button, and sat down at his place. David sat to his right, George at his left. Julius walked off to an indistinct corner where he could be ignored for the entire meeting, but could still be present in it. Across from the corner where he stood, there was a large white screen at an angle to the wall. On it was projected the scene of the charred wreckage of what had been the president’s plane. A few flames still licked at the metal, but the fire crews had managed to tame the inferno.
General Katana cleared his voice, and the silence that was already in the room intensified.
“What happened, ladies and gentlemen?” he began. In other circumstances, he would have exchanged pleasantries with them. He was particularly famous for his witty jokes, and the people now seated at the table had grown to expect them from him. But now they didn’t, and he didn’t waste any time proving them wrong.
Without a word, one of the men pushed back his chair, stood and walked out of his position. As he did so, he produced a black gadget from his pocket, pressed a button on it. The screen shifted scenes. Instead of the blaze, it now showed the plane sitting on the ramp, preparing to leave, its engines warming up. No one spoke as the plane rolled down to the runway and taxied for take-off. Then it started accelerating down the runway. As it was lifting off at the other end, the standing man pressed another button on his gadget. The screen froze. Suspended in midair, the plane seemed normal. That is, until one looked closely at the retracting undercarriage. A blue circle wrapped around the spot, and an arrow materialized, pointed at something. The man pressed a button, and zoomed onto the spot.
What the occupants of the room were looking at was footage from one ofvery powerful cameras which had been installed just a week before by the agency on the grounds of the airport for the president’s security. They had been installed secretly, and some of the men and women around the table didn’t know they even existed.
“Since the accident happened, we have been analyzing pictures from the scene, and we have come up with some valuable insights,” the standing man said. His name was Allan. He gestured at the screen, adjusted his thin-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose. “As you can see, the left undercarriage was tripped with a wire.” Another picture came on the screen, showing the same scene a second later. “The wire was rigged such that when the wheel passed into the belly of the plane, it snapped.” The picture shifted again. “And a second later, a spark materialized under the left fuel tank.” Allan scanned the room. He enjoyed his job, coordinating the hi-tech devices which the agency used. He was a computer scientist, and had been recruited right from university after compromising the security of computer systems which belonged to the NSIS itself. He had stayed with the agency for years now, and spent by far the highest amount of hours within the building, hidden in the dungeon which hosted his computers. He usually wore jeans and sneakers, but was now adorning a sharp black suit like everyone else in the room.
“That spark developed to become the fireball which engulfed the plane,” Allan said.After showing different angles from the other cameras, he let the video continue in slow motion, and the occupants of the room watched as the small spark gradually grew in size until the whole plane disappeared into it. “From this, my current proposal is that it was a bomb, ladies and gentlemen, or a mechanism which compromised the fuel tank and caused an explosion. However, that doesn’t matter, because either way, if my theory is correct, the crash was conceived, planned, managed and staged by someone, or some people. And it succeeded in killing the president. Now, I am not saying it is the only possibility. But it is all we have at the moment.All options are still on the table. We are still looking for more leads from available visual footage. But if it is true that the wire caused the explosion, then the crash was a successful assassination.”
In his seat, General Katana cursed under his breath once more. Despite his fears, he had still been hopeful it wouldn’t have to come to this. He had still hoped that he would be told the accident had been just that, an accident. That would have made it easier, far much easier for him to handle. The emergency briefing had been his last hope for a clean legacy. Now he was certain that if he wanted an illustrious one, he would have to work for it all over again. The crash hadn’t been an accident, and it was now up to him to investigate it, find an answer to the question which he knew had just started rippling through the nation; who had killed the president?He knew that this was just the beginning of a long, arduous search. The eight continuous hours he had spent in bed the previous night would be his last for a very long time.