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18 December 2006

Jonjo’s Present

A short story

By Giles Foden

Early one morning in December, I arrived at Max Adebayo’s doorstep to find a stranger hugging my friend’s ankles. His head in the air, Adebayo was saying “Good day”, in that peculiar manner of his which always makes me think he’s more English than I am. It was a Friday, and I shall never forget the events that followed. For of all the cases of Adebayo’s which I’ve recorded over the past decade – and there must be almost 50 now – this is one of the most peculiar.

It began like this. Expecting our usual game of squash at Holmes Place in the Barbican, I had just sloped over to Adebayo’s house from my own apartment on Lofting Road (a much more modest affair) to find this eccentric visitor, weeping and wailing, dressed in the uniform of a security guard, kneeling at my squash partner’s feet.

“Yutake?” mumbled the stranger, his bowed head muffling his voice.

Assuming he was speaking a foreign language, I looked up at Adebayo in the doorway. His face wore an expression of disdain mixed with faint amusement. I was not amused. It looked as if our weekend booking at Holmes Place – secured with much effort and application – was about to be tossed aside again.

“Good day,” repeated Adebayo at his most grave and portentous. “My name is Max Adebayo.” He gestured in my direction. “This is my associate Francis Deer, who is no doubt wondering why you have assumed this unusual position at my feet. So am I, as a matter of fact.”

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The stranger looked up at us both with bloodshot, uncomprehending eyes.

Impatient to get going, I took a more direct approach: “What do you want?”

“You take job?” he asked Adebayo.

Deftly but firmly, Adebayo disengaged the man from his ankles. “You’d better come in,” he said.

The visitor half rose, then, after a gesture from myself, went inside. I followed them both down the hall, which was hung with Dufys and Braques – no doubt acquired with some of Adebayo’s oil money – as well as pieces on wooden board by the Tingatinga artists of Tanzania: highly stylised and colourful pictures of elephants and giraffes and so on, painted with ordinary household gloss.

“You do investigations, yes?” said the man, addressing Adebayo’s broad back.

“Sometimes,” came the reply.

“Confidential? Tell nobody?”

“Mostly,” replied Adebayo, with a certain coldness. “Don’t worry,” he added, “you may speak freely in front of Francis. He reports on some of my cases for his newspaper, but with the utmost discretion.”

“I was afraid you were too much busy,” continued the man as we entered the drawing room.

“You could not have come at a better time,” said Adebayo, casting me a sidelong glance. “You save me from a game of squash. I generally avoid exercise. It excites the blood. So your calling upon me this morning is not unwelcome.”

He beamed at the stranger, who gave every impression of not having understood. There was something glassy-eyed about the fellow. Adebayo motioned him to be seated and I took the opportunity of inspecting him more closely, wondering if it would give some clues as to why he had presented himself at Adebayo’s door in this manner.

Beyond his security guard’s uniform, I did not glean very much. However, I observed a curious buckle on his belt: it was a silver leopard, its tail curling over its back. There was also a jaguar motif on the right side of his black jumper and he wore epaulettes on both shoulders. His shapeless trousers were not very clean; they shone at the knees. His face told a typical story of exile and extreme distress. I stared into the man’s eyes – red with a hint of yellow – and he stared back.

“I’m sure you have a story of peculiar fasci nation to tell us,” Adebayo said to him, as if reading my thoughts. “You might begin with your name.”

“I am Gideon Maseru,” answered the man, with a slight cough.

“From the Congo, yes?” stated Adebayo.

Maseru nodded in surprise, then coughed again.

“You have a dry throat? Perhaps you would care for some coffee?”

The Congolese smiled – his teeth didn’t look terribly good – and nodded again.

“Could you oblige, Francis?” said Adebayo in a rather offhand manner. “Use the Frappuccino machine for the milk.”

I crossed the drawing room towards the kitchen. As well as being unnaturally tidy, Adebayo’s house in Ripplevale Grove is a mon ument to his obsessions. Art, technology – he was a fiend for gadgets – and books. The sleek shelves groaned with titles from various branches of anthropology and law. As the kettle boiled and the milk warmed on the stove, I eavesdropped on their conversation.

“I came from Congo five years ago,” said Mas eru. “Now I work as security guard at the Jaguar factory in Coventry, Brown’s Lane.”

“I visited Kineton base once,” interjected Adebayo, warming to his visitor. “During my military training. It’s in Warwickshire nearby. Do you know it?”

“No, sir,” answered Maseru in a voice full of sorrow.

“Do continue.”

“I have had hard time in Britain. Ya wewa! Very many problems. But it was getting better until this – thing – happened.”

I was amused to hear Adebayo mention his “military training”. He had made a special study of guns and ballistics, it was true, but he was no soldier. A six-month stint at Sandhurst (his father fondly imagined he would join the Nigerian army) only convinced him that the regimental life was altogether far too regimented.

His next wrong step – a graduate traineeship with the Surrey Police – perfectly rounded off that disastrous year at the end of the Eighties; from then on my friend would never forget the racism of the British police, deprecating with equal conviction their stupidity.

When he worked in the City, however, his brief police career convinced the personnel department of one of Britain’s largest insurance companies to appoint him to their investigations division. It was here, mainly under the tutelage of the late J C R Wilby (whom readers will remember from the Ashcroft case), that Adebayo learned his trade. Mostly, he always says, it involves listening.

“My brother, Innocent Maseru, he also work as security guard on Brown’s Lane. Not at the main factory, like me. At a showroom of the Godiva Motor Company which is connected with it. They keep Jaguars in the showroom. Two weeks ago, in the middle of the night, thieves broke into the Godiva garage with iron bars. They hit my brother over the head. A witness investigated after hearing the security alarm and smashed the glass at 12.30am. But by then the thieves had gone.”

Adebayo was fairly strictly cross-examining his visitor on the facts of the case as I brought in the coffee on a tray. Personally, I was still more concerned about my booking at the squash club than a case of car theft.

A portrait of Adebayo’s late father, the Chief, well dressed in a dark suit, hung on the wall of the drawing room opposite. That distant man had wrought such a change in my friend’s life. The Chief had been a speculator and political operator. After his death a large inheritance, mainly in oil stocks, had liberated his only son from the bondage of work. It allowed Adebayo to become the “African private eye” he is today, though the truth of his financial, not to mention cultural, situation is rather more complex.

Adebayo does most of his work pro bono. Among the Yoruba of Peckham (his own folk), the Somalis of Cardiff or the Malawians of Glasgow he is an almost legendary figure, an icon of wisdom and generosity, able to deal with cases beyond the ken and capabilities of the police. But to me he is just plain old Max, my closest and dearest friend.

“What’s the matter with you?” spluttered Adebayo, staring in disbelief at his cup. “You know I take it black.”

“I’ll make some more,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“Never mind,” he said tetchily. “Let me instead boil down for you the story I have got from Mr Maseru here.”

“I heard. Whoever took them, the cars are probably halfway to the Continent by now.”

Adebayo fixed me with his eye. “I doubt it,” he said. “They are replicas. Ride-on replica cars stolen from a showroom full of luxury motors. The three five-foot mini models include a red Jaguar C-Type, a silver Jaguar E-Type and a green Jaguar XKR. They have six-volt batteries and electric motors, but I doubt these would get them to the Continent.”

“Why would someone steal toy replicas instead of the real thing?” I asked.

“It is in search of an answer to that question that we shall soon be making a trip to Coventry. Mr Maseru, if you could be so kind as to give me your address.”

The following day I found myself standing alongside Adebayo at Euston station, waiting for the Virgin Express to Coventry. Gaudily decked out for Christmas, the station looked even more disgusting than normal. We bought a stack of newspapers – my friend is a crossword addict – and, having boarded the train, rode in silence for half an hour as he completed every crossword without pausing once for inspiration.

“Right,” said Adebayo, casting aside his last crossword. “Let us put our facts together, as far as we are able. What do you think this case is about?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re little cars. Maybe children were involved. Or maybe someone somewhere likes to race little cars, with midget drivers. A circus in Russia? Then I thought: Innocent, he’s bound to be guilty. But what I can’t get out of my head is the motor- racing dwarves.”

“Don’t be frivolous,” said Adebayo, stony-faced. “I spent some time on the telephone this morning to an Inspector Billingham of the West Midlands Police, and he told me a number of interesting things.”

He consulted his notebook. “The cars were quite heavy, despite their size. It would take at least two people to carry them. Also, they were soon to be auctioned for charity in the Hare and Hounds pub near Brown’s Lane. Finally, each had full-size Jaguar insignia on its bonnet.”

He smiled. “Billingham said the cars are worth about £300, so we are not dealing with a major-league crime. It is possible they were stolen for children, as they would make fine toys. Or by someone with a grudge against the Godiva Motor Company. Or, since it’s an affiliate, Jaguar itself. Yet there is something even stranger about this affair: the Congolese connection, for one thing. And that buckle on Gideon’s belt. Did I ever tell you about the leopard men of Congo?”

“I don’t recall,” I said.

“Leopard societies, properly described. Very active during the Belgian colonial period. Men who believed they could turn into leopards. They attacked people.”

“Like werewolves?”

“They are actually closer to the jaguar cults of South America,” continued Adebayo. “These leopard men are priests, shamans.”

He paused as we pulled into Milton Keynes station. “The Congo is a country remarkable even in Africa for its deep commitment to witchcraft. Only Benin surpasses it in that respect. Even with the onset of modernity, the dark world of the fetish is ever present. The leopard men can help you, but if you do not placate them they will carry you away in their claws.”

“Claws?”

“They wear leopard-skins on their backs and gloves with claws sewn into them.”

“I don’t see what all this has to do with replica cars.”

“Indeed not,” said Adebayo, casting his eyes over the Warwickshire countryside as we rocketed through. “Yet the fact remains that all the proceeds from selling the toy cars were to go to a charity active in eastern Congo, and the event was advertised as such: relief for jungle war orphans. It seems too much of a coincidence that a Congolese should then be arrested for the crime.”

“What do they have on Gideon’s brother?”

“Innocent? His prints were on one of the iron bars.”

“But presumably, a security guard would have been inside the showroom, not smashing his way in from outside?”

“Correct. Billingham believes he came outside to smash the glass and that an accomplice pulled up in a van into which they loaded the replicas.”

“And then he let this accomplice hit him over the head as a farewell present? It seems unlikely. Unless they wanted to throw people off the scent.”

“That’s what the police think. Innocent says he used one of the iron bars to lever himself up when he came round.”

“Hence the fingerprints.”

“Exactly. I’m inclined to believe him.”

At that moment the driver announced in a nasal voice that we would shortly be arriving at Coventry. It was about one o’clock.

“Here we are,” said Adebayo. “I’m going to visit Gideon and Innocent. I’d like you to go to the Hare and Hounds pub and make some inquiries as to the nature of this charity that was to have auctioned the cars. Meet me at our hotel.” He handed me a card with an address on it.

There was a high wind blowing as we drove out of Coventry station, and scraps of rubbish flew between the flyovers. Many of the buildings had broken windows and there was an atmosphere of potential violence. The vast Jaguar factory dominated the place to such an extent that it was sometimes known as Jaguar Town.

The Hare and Hounds was adjacent to the factory and the barman, Mr Patrick Quinlan, was friendly enough. He was a big, shabbily dressed man with pouched cheeks and deep-set eyes.

“Yes, we was,” he told me. “We was to have the auction of the cars here. I fancied one for my Jonjo for his Christmas. But then there was an argument between the Jaguar company directors about whether they was to go to a Catholic charity or a Protestant charity, and that delayed it. And then they said the money was instead to be sent to Africa for orphans of all religions. And then they was stolen, so that was that.”

“The African charity wasn’t Protestant or Catholic?”

“Not so far as I know.”

“What about you?”

“Well I used to be Catholic, Irish background, see, but . . . well, don’t get me wrong if I say things came over all funny at St Aloysius. They play the bongos. Father Albert, that’s the name of the bloke there.”

I asked him for directions to the church and he drew a little map on the back of a beer mat.

Having thanked Mr Quinlan and downed a glass of light ale by way of payment, I left with the intention of visiting the church. As I was walking along I passed an asphalt quad on which some boys in tracksuits and baseball caps were playing football. A man in a serge raincoat was watching them, seated in a kind of buggy. Thinking at once of the replica cars, I went straight over to him. But it was not one of the miniature Jaguars. He was an invalid and this motorised wheelchair was his only means of transportation. I asked him the way to the Catholic church.

The man, who was small and white-haired and had startlingly rosy cheeks, gave me a hard look. Then, to my surprise, he produced a stick from under his coat and pushed himself up out of his buggy. The raincoat fell open as he did so, and I saw a dog collar.

“I don’t know what your business is,” he said, “but if I were you I’d keep away from that place. It’s cursed. Cursed!”

“You’re a man of the cloth yourself, I see.”

“I am Keith Womersley, rector at St Nich olas.” He gestured to the right with his stick. “My church is this way.” He swung his stick in the opposite direction. “St Aloysius, his church – if it deserves the name – is over there.”

Suddenly I understood, feeling childishly excited that I would be able to go back to Adebayo and tell him I had solved the case. I explained to Womersley how Max and I were trying to help someone who had been falsely accused, and then laid my analysis of the situation before him. “You were due the money from the auction of the replica cars and the Catholic priest prised it away from you? Is that it?” I asked.

He nodded, settling back down into his wheelchair with a sigh. “Prised it off me twice over. But it wasn’t the cars Father Albert was after.” He pronounced it “Al-ber”, which led me to ask if the priest was French.

“Belgian. But his true country is hell, deep- est hell.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean he wasn’t after the cars? And why twice over?”

The Anglican gave a harrumph and rapped the tarmac. “That African charity is just another front for Father Albert’s activities.”

I was beginning to wonder if he was a bit gone in the head, when he continued:

“As for the cars, if you want to see them it can be easily arranged.” He called to the young footballers. “Jonjo, boys, take this gentleman over to the back of St Aloysius’s and show him those cars the police have been looking for.”

Perplexed, I followed them – joshing and kicking the ball around me as we walked a few hundred yards down the road – towards a church. An imposing Victorian building, it stood in a little clearing among some trees. They led me around to the back where I saw, lying among some dustbins next to a prefab building, the three Jaguars. Someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. Their plastic bodies were shattered, their seats mis shapen, their steel chassis hopelessly twisted.

“Shame, innit?” commented the boy called Jonjo, whom I realised was the publican’s son. He was heavily built like his father, but agile, dancing round the football nimbly. He kicked it against the wall of the prefab, where it made a booming sound.

A face materialised in one of the windows of the prefab, and then I heard the buzz of Rector Womersley’s buggy. “So, you see now what I’m up against. There he is. The adversary. Come away, boys, come away!”

“There was something indefinably malevolent about him,” I told Adebayo over supper that night at our hotel.

He had listened patiently to my tale since the hors d’oeuvres. “You mean the Catholic priest at the window, not the vicar in the wheelchair oozing sincerity and outraged kindliness?”

“Er, yes,” I said, disappointed that my drama tic finale had been so easily foreseen. “How did you know?”

Adebayo shrugged. “What did he look like?”

“Youngish, white, clean-shaven, dressed in a spotless soutane. His eyes were like hot ice. I felt panicked inside as he looked at me.”

“His name is Father Albert Baudouin,” announced Adebayo, taking a sip of wine. “Formerly a missionary to the Congo, according to my researches. Older than he looks and, I think, the key to this mystery. You didn’t get a chance to examine the missing cars more closely?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“I think that if you had, you would have found that the insignia from the bonnets had been removed. Figurines in the shape of the leaping beast.”

I shook my head. “As soon as that priest appeared, all I wanted to do was get away.”

The waiter appeared and Adebayo surveyed his plate of steak and chips with satisfaction.

“Well,” he said, “I’m afraid you will have to humour me and return there later tonight. You may have found the cars, as I hoped you would, but the jaguars still elude us.”

“Are you saying you knew I’d find them?”

“I knew some things,” he said, reaching for the tomato sauce. “Others, which I suspected, your story confirmed.”

“And what about Innocent and Gideon?” I asked.

“I’m afraid my story is too long to tell. I went to Clerval Street, where the Maseru brothers live. The window sills were rotten and there were plenty of tiles missing from the roof. I knocked. No answer, but the door was open, so I went inside.

“There was no light in the hall, and the floor was slippery and wet. There was a terrible smell. In the front room I found five or six men, all Afri cans, it seemed mostly Congolese, asleep on mattres ses. Bottles of beer lying about. A Belgian brand: Primus. They all wore white vests. That was strange.”

“Was it?” I asked.

“Everything else in the place was awful and rotting, but next to the sleeping men was a metal clothes rail on which hung the most extravagant costumes: patterned Nehru-collar jac kets in several different shades and deep-pleated trousers. All spotless and immaculately ironed, with slip-on shoes neatly lined up underneath. And you know what? Each of those trousers had a belt, and each of those belts had a leopard buckle of the very same type as Gideon’s.”

“Was he there?”

“I found Gideon in the kitchen, cooking rice. I’ve never seen anyone stir a pot with such anguish. I hesitated to break in on his solitude. The place was full of plastic chicken wrappers. I thought one of the men must be packing chickens for a living in some dreadful factory.” He sniggered. “You’re probably eating one.”

“Thank you, Max, for spoiling my dinner.”

“Anyway, Gideon turned off the filthy stove when he saw me and took me to Innocent. In one of the rooms upstairs, four or five men were sitting on plastic chairs watching television. They all wore smart outfits like the ones hanging downstairs. Only Gideon, still in his security guard uniform, was dressed differently.

“‘We share this TV with another house down Clerval Street,’ he told me as we passed by the room. ‘There are more Congolese there and we swap it night-day by the shifts.’

“Innocent was in another room at the end of the corridor, sitting cross-legged on a mattress smoking a cigarette. He looked very like his broth er, except that he was in a vest like the sleepers downstairs, and whereas Gideon was pleasant and polite, Innocent was rude and ungracious.

“‘Why do you come here?’ he asked me.

“‘Gideon invited me,’ I said. ‘I understand you are in trouble with the police.’

“‘I had some difficulty. But it is finished now.’ He sucked on the cigarette, making the end glow red in the darkness. ‘They have dropped the charges.’

“‘You mean to say,’ I observed, ‘that I have come all this way on false pretences?’

“‘We are full of fears,’ Gideon said eventually. ‘If he comes -‘

“‘Ferme ton bec!‘ hissed Innocent.

“Gideon seemed to be struggling to breathe. ‘Garde au col,’ he gasped, putting out a trem-bling hand to lean on me. I thought he meant, in some Congolese formation, something like ‘watch your neck’, and at that moment Innocent darted up.

“Gideon cried out: ‘Sauvez-nous! Et mes habits!‘ And he sort of slid down me, clinging to my ankles, just as he did on my doorstep.

“‘Assez comme ça!‘ shouted Innocent, dragging Gideon from me with surprising force. Then he pushed me out of the door, and grabbing a stick – an ebony walking stick – he began beating me down the stairs.”

Adebayo’s eyes blazed. “I could have torn him to pieces. But I didn’t fight back.”

“Why not?”

Adebayo solemnly shook his head. “The man wasn’t himself. Something had taken possession of him.”

“What do you mean?”

“After leaving the house and walking some way down Clerval Street, I looked back: a white man stood at the threshold of the door I had just left. How he had got there I do not know. He was wearing a dog collar. That is what Gideon had meant: Garde au col d’ecclésiastique. Watch out for the dog collar. Watch out for the priest.”

“Another priest?” I said, mystified, thinking two clerics sufficient for any story.

“No. It was your Father Baudouin: young, or seeming young, clean-shaven, spotless soutane, et cetera. From your description I believe it was the very same man. If it is a man -“

“But it’s at least five miles from St Aloysius to Clerval Street!” I protested. “How on earth could Father Baudouin be with the Maseru brothers at the same time as he was looking at me from the window of the church?”

Adebayo smiled again. “Oh, he is very fleet of foot.”

He eyed my plate of half-finished chicken. “Eat up, Francis, old chap. You must get me to the church on time.”

About an hour later, around ten o’clock at night, I was again approaching the grove of trees surrounding St Aloysius. The church door was ajar.

“It’s as if we are expected,” I said.

“I believe we are,” replied Adebayo, leading the way inside.

At first sight it was an ordinary late-Victorian Catholic church, with vaulted ceiling and thick pillars. However, all around us we could hear the soft drumming of the ngoma or African tom-tom, while in front of the altar knelt about 20 worshippers, black and white. I recognised Gideon Maseru, and assumed that the man next to him was his brother.

“Initiates of the leopard society,” whispered Adebayo. “Come. The direct approach is our only hope.”

As we crossed the tiled floor, the drumming increased in fervour and I noticed for the first time that instead of a cross on the altar there was a kind of plinth on which stood three silver figurines.

“The three jaguars!” I exclaimed.

“Making shift as leopards in this instance,” commented Adebayo. “For all of us in exile must serve another purpose,” he added, mysteriously.

As we arrived at the front of the swaying congregation, we heard a deep growl – and then it sprang out at us from behind the curtains, making straight for Max’s neck.

The leopard man knocked Max to the tiles, squeezing his throat with claw-like hands. Then he bent over and bit the detective on the nose.

I was rooted to the spot as my friend fought back, gripping the leopard man’s own throat with both hands. Locked in this fight to the death, they rolled around in front of the altar while the worshippers looked on in eerie silence.

Seeing my friend fall, I suddenly awoke, as if from a dream. Grabbing the plinth with the three jaguars on it from the altar, I ran down the aisle. With all my strength I brought the bizarre object of worship down on the leopard man’s head, knocking the unholy creature to the floor.

I offered Max my hand, but before he could take it, Father Baudouin was back on his feet and coming for me, slashing the air with the steel claws that were attached to his hands.

This time it was Max’s turn to save me. Seizing the jaguar plinth, he held it out towards the creature and began intoning words in a language I did not recognise. And then an extraordinary thing happened. With his leopard headpiece askew, Father Baudouin fell to his knees before Adebayo, whimpering.

Just as suddenly, he turned and ran down the nave and sprang out of the open door of the church. At that very moment, as he disappeared from view, he most resembled the physical form of a leopard.

The abject worshippers crowded round us. Adebayo addressed them calmly in French for a while. Then he took Innocent Maseru’s right wrist, holding it firmly between finger and thumb. I saw then that Innocent’s hand was strangely fixed in a claw-like position. Adebayo spoke in the same African language he had directed at Father Baudouin. Innocent’s fingers, almost imperceptibly at first, and then more noticeably, relaxed. Adebayo then did the same to Gideon and the other initiates of the leopard. Afterwards, without saying a word, they drifted away, one by one.

“What did you say to bring him to his knees?” I asked my friend, having sunk into a pew in the front row to watch him work his magic.

The blood was drying on Adebayo’s nose as he spoke. “Special words that a grand master of leopard societies says to junior masters. Words of power.”

“How on earth did you know them?”

He turned to me with a strange smile. “Because I have studied them. I once spent some time at the headquarters of all the leopard men, which is in Benin. Dahomey as was.”

“All right, Max, what was this about, really?” I asked on our return journey.

Adebayo stretched back in his seat and stared out into the night, his plastered nose looking rather like a bird’s beak. “Baudouin had set up a leopard society in Coventry,” he said, “and Gideon and Innocent were members. They did his bidding and stole the three Jaguars for his altarpiece. But Gideon started playing up, and I suppose Baudouin took away his expensive clothes to teach him obedience.”

“Why should that matter?”

“Another distinctive thing about the Congolese, apart from witchcraft, is their clothes. They are incorrigible dandies. However poor they are, they dress to impress. That was the strangest thing about Gideon when he turned up unannounced. That magnificent leopard buckle had no place on a drab security guard’s uniform. It was intended for the sort of extravagant outfit his companions wore. That was what he meant by mes habits.”

“So they didn’t want the cars themselves at all, just the jaguar insignia?”

“Correct,” said Adebayo, who had broken the insignia off the plinth before we left the church and now had them safely hidden in his suitcase.

“But I still don’t understand how Father Baudouin controlled them.”

“Hypnotism. It probably started with Congo lese members of his congregation who may have been exposed to the cult in their own country, then it spread to those most susceptible over here, African or not. The Jaguar symbol is very powerful in Coventry, where that company is the main employer. I suspect Father Baudouin was able to draw on the psychological force of that connection and link it with the ancient leopard ceremonies he had learned as a missionary.”

The buffet came by and I bought two cups of undrinkable tea.

“But tell me,” I said, “why did Gideon ask for your help if he was under Father Baudouin’s control?”

Adebayo rested his elbows on the table between us, cupped his chin in his hands, and gave me a hard look. “I don’t know. Either he had managed to escape from Father Baudouin’s influence – and the shock of his brother’s arrest might have broken the spell – or . . .”

“Or what?”

He took his hands away and stared at the Formica. “Or Baudouin wanted a challenge. Maybe he thought, because of my anthropological articles on the subject, that I was a leopard master myself.” He gave a little smile. “What a comical idea.”

“You mean he wanted to test his powers, using Gideon as bait?”

Adebayo stroked his injured nose with a finger. “One should not get too mixed up in such things,” he said. “It is dangerous.”

We sat in silence for a while, until something else occurred to me.

“How did Father Baudouin get from the church to Clerval Street so quickly?”

Adebayo opened his eyes, which he had been resting. “The last thing I want to do,” he said, “is overstimulate your imagination, especially where Africa is concerned; but there, as anywhere, the dark powers are at work. Looked at in the right way, these leopard men are truly leopard men, neither human nor animal, but something in between.”

“But that’s impossible!” I objected.

Adebayo sat in silent thought, as if trying to find the right words to explain something to me. He evidently thought better of it, because he did not elucidate further. I can still only hint at what my friend knows and has seen.

I changed the subject. “What about Womersley,” I asked, “the other cleric? How does he fit into all this?”

“He must have cottoned on to Baudouin. I expect the Belgian openly dared his Christian rival to make greater magic if he could.”

We heard nothing of the fate of Father Baudouin until some time later. After much trouble with the booking, I finally got my game of squash with Adebayo on Boxing Day. I was giving him a good thrashing when he suddenly stopped playing and picked up the ball, pressing it between finger and thumb.

“I forgot to tell you,” he said casually. “I had a call from Inspector Billingham of the West Midlands Police on Christmas Eve. He was tell ing me about Gibbet Hill in Coventry. They used to hang people there in days gone by, and according to him it’s still a wild place and not much frequented.

“Two ramblers discovered Father Baudouin’s body at the foot of a tree. He had been savagely attacked by an animal of some kind. The inspector used the word ‘mauled’. He was at a loss to explain it, for no big cats were missing from the local zoos.”

Adebayo raised the ball to serve. “So it seems that, despite our best efforts, leopards still roam in Jaguar Town.”

He whipped the ball into a corner and I ran for it, missing because I was distracted by his story. “And there was one other thing. Apparently there was so much fuss about this whole affair in the Coventry Evening Telegraph that the directors of Jaguar auctioned a new set of replica cars at the Hare and Hounds.”

As I readied myself for Adebayo’s next serve, I wondered whether Jonjo Quinlan had got his Christmas present after all.

The film of Giles Foden’s novel “The Last King of Scotland” opens on 12 January. He is currently writing a series of stories about Max Adebayo, PI

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