The car park outside of Al Fresco’s was not incredibly secluded, its one entrance was adjacent to a short cut between two popular streets in the city centre, resulting in a fair amount of bustle. It was not an ideal location for lunch, due to the intense September heat, yet often I found it easier to make it through my break in solitude there, at one of the three tables which framed the entrance, rather than the busy rear of the restaurant.

At that time I would not have liked be confused for some sort of expatriate hermit, but I did seek out, unpopular places to read for lunch – it being my only time to do so during the day. This has never been easy in Lilongwe, as its small lunch scene guarantees most cafes a stock of of familiar faces.

I had been stuck on a particular page for a while when my piccante pizza slid under my nose. My stomach rumbled as I began cutting into it, and just before I could get any of it into my mouth, my phone rang.

Irritated, I did no recognise the caller’s number. Swallowing my first bite of pizza, I answered with a muffled, “Hewlo?”

The crackling on the other end of the line made it difficult to understand the man.

“Hello, is this Mr. Collin?”

“Speaking.”

“Hello this is Mr —-. from Area 14. I am — your neighbor.”

“Ah, hello! What can I do for you Mr…..?”

“Pravin. I am calling because your garden boy is a thief.”

“Foster?”

“Yes, he is a thief, he stole from my friend.”

Foster, my housekeeper Mary’s brother-in-law, had been missing from work for two days. Mary had said the police had come looking for him. This was all I knew.

The man attempted to explain to me what had happened, but the line was too poor and my empty stomach did not aid comprehension. I asked him to come around to my house at seven that evening, so he could explain things to me in person.

* * * * * * * * * *

After peering out of the front gate, Laston, my night guard, opened it up, and my car rolled down the steep driveway adjacent to my house. Inside, I found my housemates at the time: Andy, a redheaded Scott working for the British Council, was chewing on some dinner while talking to Dave, an English lawyer working on penal reform in Malawi. I explained to them that some men were coming to talk about Foster, and asked for their support.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Pravin and his friend Mr. Deepan. Pravin was an older Indian Malawian man, his skin touched by some sort of lightened disorder. Deepan was also Asian, and had a thick black mustache stretched out across his grin. I greeted them, introduced Andy and Dave and showed them to the nearest sofa.

“Now,” I said, once everyone was seated, “Explain to me again, carefully, what happened.”

Deepan grinned.

“I run a business here in Malawi, electrical repairs and the what, so I’m often carrying my company checks around with me. Last week Tuesday, I left the checks in my living room unattended. My garden boy, who is friends with your Foster, snuck in and stole several of the checks. I know this because I did not notice for several days, and when I did my cook told me he saw my garden boy take them.

I called the police and surprised my garden boy, who claims he gave it to your Foster. The police and Mr. Pravin went around to your house on Friday to ask about him, and ended up talking to your housekeeper Mary, who says she does not know where he is. We used the garden boy’s phone to try and call Foster to trap him, but he has since shut off his phone – we think Mary warned him.”

There was a bit of a pause as we digested his story.

Andy spoke first.

“So you don’t actually know if Foster has the missing checks? You don’t really have any proof that he was involved.”

Pravin answered.

“We do, the garden boy said he gave the checks to the Foster. The two of them have been plotting this for quite some time. We’ve searched the garden boys quarters and there were no sign of the checks. If the Foster was not involved, why would he run away?”

“Listen, if I was a poor Malawian and heard the police were looking out for me,” replied Dave, “I’d be out of here like a flash, whether or not I did it.”

Pravin shrugged. “We do not care about Foster so much, we just want the checks back. The police are holding the garden boy in jail right now, and we cannot drop charges until we get the checks back. The man has a wife and family, and yet now he is stuck in jail. It would be a shame to let that continue but, we cannot let him go without the checks, can we?”

“So let me get this straight,” I said, “You’re going to hold this fellow behind bars until someone returns the checks? What good is it to tell me this? I have no communication with Foster.”

Deepan smiled, he white teeth rolling out underneath a layer of thick black hair.

“We were hoping you would find a way of letting this Foster know.”

They of course knew that the checks could easily be canceled. It was the principle of the thing, the wronging of these men by a couple poor, hopeless garden boys which justified their wrath.

Pravin turned to me, “What of this lady Mary, how does she know him?”

“She is his sister-in-law,” I said, “When I was looking to hire a garden boy she provided the contact.”

“Funny,” Pravin said, “she said she did not know him so well last Friday.”

Fuck, Mary. I thought. The last thing you need to be doing is lying to the police.

Dave cut in, “I think she was probably quite frightened by the police as well. She’s still just a girl and the sight of you with a bunch of detectives at your flank must be quite intimidating.”

Pravin frowned, “Perhaps we need to talk to her again.”

I suddenly felt a tightening in my chest. I did not want them bullying her.

“Listen,” I said, “We’ll find a way of getting your message to Foster, but Mary has nothing to do with this. If you must, must talk to her with the police present, I absolutely insist that you let me know in advance, so we can be there as well her. ”

My housemates nodded. Pravin and Deepan looked at each other and slowly nodded as well.

“Her father recently died, so she really doesn’t need the police showing up and scaring her,” I said.

“We are very sorry,” said Deepan.

We talked a while longer, going over the details of the theft and Fosters possible involvement several times. We kept insisting that the evidence linking him was circumstantial – the two men remained convinced that their intuition was correct. They left, with smiles and shook hands and promises of keeping in contact. Once they were out the door I turned to the others.

“Tough bind, eh?” I said.

“What do you mean?” said Andy.

“Well, maybe Foster is innocent, maybe he isn’t. If he comes back without those checks, they are just going to throw him in jail. If he comes back with them, he’s a thief, and can’t work her any longer, if they don’t throw him in jail anyway… I’m going to go talk to Mary about this.”

I found her in her quarters behind the house. I explained to her that the two men had visited, but that the three of us would be there if they ever needed to speak with her personally.

“Mary, if you have any contact with Foster — don’t tell me how or anything about him, but if you have any contact –please let him know that they just want the checks back.”

She paused for a moment with a careful, pensive look on her face.

“What I think… is that he probably did it,” she said.

I nodded and shrugged, turning away and walking up the steps back to my house, my dog Hastings running circles around me in the dark.

We never heard from Foster again, nor Pravin or Deepan. Eventually someone else took over the gardening job, keeping the plants in check, lest they overwhelm us when our attention is elsewhere.