The last few bars of ‘Don’t Explain’ faded into silence, or rather into the distant sound of the waves tugging at the beach beneath the Bakau cliffs. Lady Chilel Jawara had discovered Billie Holiday on a trip to New York several years before. Her husband had been attending the UN, and she had decided, on the spur of the moment, to visit an exhibition of photographs of Afro-American music stars. It was the singer’s face she had first fallen in love with, before she’d heard a single note of her music. It was like her mother’s, but that was not the only reason. It was the face of someone who knew what it was like to be a woman.
Not that Billie Holiday had ever been the senior wife of the president of a small African state. Lady Jawara had a lot to be thankful for, and she knew it. Her children were sleeping between sheets, went to the best school, and ate when they were hungry. If they got ill a doctor was sent for.
As for herself, she enjoyed the role of senior wife. Her husband might rule the country but she ruled the household, and of the two administrations she suspected hers was both the more efficient and the less stressful. She hoped he had enjoyed the wedding in London, though she doubted it. Generally he was as bored by European ceremonies as she was.
She yawned and stretched her arms, wondering whether to listen to the other side of the record or go to bed. At that moment she heard the sound of a vehicle approaching.
Whoever it was, they were coming to the Presidential bungalow, for the road led nowhere else. She felt suddenly anxious. ‘Bojang!’ she called, walking to the living-room door.
‘Yes, Lady,’ he said, emerging from the kitchen just as a hammering started on the compound gate.
They both stood there listening, she uncertain what to do, he waiting for instructions. ‘See who it is,’ she said at last.
He let himself out, and she went in search of the gun she knew her husband kept somewhere in the house. The drawers of his desk in the study seemed the best bet, but two of them yielded no gun and the other two were locked. She was still looking for the key when an armed man appeared in the study doorway.
‘Who are you? And what do you want in my house?’ she asked.
‘You are under arrest,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘By whose authority?’
‘And your children,’ the man added, looking round with interest at the President’s study. ‘By the authority of the Revolutionary Council.’
Her contempt stung the man. ‘Your days are over, bitch,’ he said.
The firefight which began at the gates of the Presidential Palace soon after four a.m., and which continued intermittently across its gardens, up Marina Parade and down to the beach, for the next two hours, woke up most of those sleeping within a quarter of a mile of the Palace.
Opposite the new Atlantic Hotel in Marina Parade, Mustapha Diop was happily snoring his way through it all until his wife’s anxiety forced her to wake him. The two of them sat up in bed listening to the gunfire, then went together to the window, where all they could see was a distant view of the moon on the surf and any number of palm fronds swaying gently in the night breeze.
Diop and his family were from Senegal, and had been in Banjul only a few weeks, since his appointment as secretary to the committee overseeing the proposed union between the two countries. Since a treaty already existed whereby either government would intervene to save the other from an armed take-over, Diop was already aware that he might prove an important bargaining card for any Gambian rebels. The sudden violent knocking on the door downstairs made it clear that the same thought had occurred to them.
Half a mile to the west, the gunfire was only audible, and barely so, when the breeze shifted in the right direction. Moussa Diba and Lamin Konko shared a north-east-facing cell in Banjul Prison, and Diba, prevented from sleeping as usual by the vengeful thoughts which circled his brain, was at first uncertain of what it was he could hear. The sound of lorries rolling past, headed into Banjul from the direction of the Denton Bridge, offered him another clue. Either there was a mother of an exercise going on – which seemed about as likely as an edible breakfast – or someone was trying to topple that little bastard Jawara. Diba smiled to himself in the gloom, and woke Konko with a jab of his foot.
His cellmate groaned. ‘What is it?’ he said sleepily.
Konko listened. ‘Gunfire,’ he said. ‘So what?’
‘So nothing. I thought you’d enjoy some excitement.’
‘I was having plenty in my sleep. There’s this girl I used to know in my village. I’d forgotten all about her…’
He rambled on, making Diba think of Anja, and of what she was doubtless doing. The woman could not say no. Unfortunately, he could not say no for her, not while he was locked up in this cell.
Another burst of gunfire sounded, this time closer. So what? Diba’s thoughts echoed his cellmate’s. Whatever was happening out there was unlikely to help him in here.
Simon McGrath, awoken in his room on the fourth floor of the Carlton Hotel, thought for a moment he was back on the Jebel Dhofar in Oman, listening to the firqats firing off their rifles in jubilation at the successful capture of Sudh. The illusion was brief-lived. He had never had a bed in Oman, not even one as uncomfortable as the Carlton’s. And it had been more than ten years since the men he had helped to train had taken Sudh and started rolling back the tide of the Dhofari rebels.
This was Banjul, The Gambia, and he was no longer in the SAS. Still, he thought, swinging his legs to the floor and striding across to the window, the gunfire he was listening to was coming out of Kalashnikov barrels, and they were not standard issue with the Gambian Field Force. Out there on the capital’s mean streets something not quite kosher seemed to be taking place.
The view from his window, which faced south across the shanty compounds towards the Great Mosque, was uninstructive. Nothing was lit, nothing moving. He tried the light switch, but as usual at this time of night, the hotel’s electricity was off.
McGrath dressed in the dark, wondering what would be the prudent thing to do. Stay in bed, probably.
To hell with that.
He delved into his bag and extracted the holster and semi-automatic 9mm Browning High Power handgun which he had brought with him from England. Since McGrath was in The Gambia in a civilian capacity, seconded from the Royal Engineers to head a technical assistance team engaged in bridge-building and pipe-laying, his possession of the Browning was strictly illicit, but that hardly concerned him. The Third World, as he was fond of telling people who lived in more comfortable places, was like an overpopulated Wild West, and he had no intention of ending up with an arrow through his head. A little string-pulling among old contacts at Heathrow had eased the gun’s passage onto the plane, and at Yundum no one had dreamed of checking his baggage.
He threaded the cross-draw holster to his belt, slipped on the lightweight jacket to hide the gun, and left his room. At first it seemed as if the rest of the hotel remained blissfully unaware of whatever it was that was happening outside, but as he went down the corridor he caught the murmur of whispered conversations.
He was about to start down the stairs when the benefits of a visit to the roof occurred to him. He walked up the two flights to the fifth floor, then one more to the flat roof. With the city showing its usual lack of illumination and the moon hiding behind clouds, it was little lighter outside than in, and for almost a minute McGrath waited in the open doorway, searching the shadows for anyone who had chosen to spend the night in the open air. Once satisfied the roof was empty, he threaded his way through the washing lines to the side overlooking Independence Drive.