cover

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Contents

Cover

Half Title

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Afterword

First published in 2011 by
Andersen Press Limited
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA
www.andersenpress.co.uk
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.
The right of Stephen Davies to be identified as the author of
this work have been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
Copyright © Stephen Davies, 2011
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available.
ISBN 978 1 84939 088 0
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Bookmarque, Croydon CR0 4TD
This book is dedicated to Norbert Zongo (1949–1998)
who had the courage to take a stand against
corruption and paid for it with his life.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norbert_Zongo

Acknowledgements

Burkina Faso, West Africa, has been my home since 2001. Many thanks to my friends and neighbours there for sharing with me their lives, their proverbs and their wonderful stories.

I am also grateful to my father-in-law, Neil Harrison, who introduced me to UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles) and to my lovely wife, Charlie, who introduced me to horses.

Chapter One

Jake Knight ran along the deserted towpath past Armley Mills and the Industrial Museum. It was two o’clock in the morning and he was so far out of bounds it was not even funny. Of all the nocturnal quests that he had been on, tonight’s was the furthest from school. As for the clue, it was more cryptic than ever before: Idle persons shuffled here. Idle persons shuffled here. Jake turned the phrase over and over in his mind, trying to tease some meaning from it.

A glimmer of moonlight reflected off the canal. Three smackheads loitered under the railway bridge ahead, kicking a DID YOU WITNESS THIS CRIME? placard between them. Jake’s heart pounded as he approached the men. His black sweater and black tracksuit bottoms were hardly conspicuous, but silence was just as important as camouflage. Keep fast, he breathed, and light on your toes.

The loiterers did not see Jake until he was among them, and no sooner had they registered his presence than he was gone again, under the railway bridge and up the side of the embankment, clawing his way through thick undergrowth and stinging nettles, breathing the sweet cloying smells of wet vegetation and festering litter. There was some angry oi-ing from the towpath below him, and a brief, fumbling attempt at pursuit.

Jake vaulted a wooden fence, crossed the railway line and scrambled through a hedge onto a council estate. How many miles had he run? Four? Five? He sprinted southeast between brooding tower blocks and came out onto Hall Lane. The boarded-up windows of Mike’s Carpets, Pet World and Armley Bingo Hall glared at him as he passed. Not far now.

Latitude was bang on, so all he needed now was to continue east until he hit the right longitude. The lane was rising steeply and the cold air made him wheeze. The flashing blue dot on his screen crept inexorably eastward. Idle persons shuffled here. Idle persons shuffled here.

1° 34' 40" west. Perfect.

Jake put his hands on his knees and gasped for breath. Then he straightened up and looked around. To his left was a high brick wall. To his right was a cemetery with tombstones leaning crazily in the moonlight. Jake shivered and checked his latitude. He was a fraction too far south, which meant that the thing he sought was not in the cemetery.

A loud American voice in his left ear made him jump. ‘You are now standing at Leeds Prison, formerly known as Armley Jail. Leeds is a Category-B prison, which once incarcerated the murderous cat burglar Charles Peace.’

Jake took the earphone out of his left ear and slipped it into the money belt underneath his sweater. He had forgotten that HearPlanet was still running – it was a useful app, but annoying when it made you jump out of your skin.

So this was Leeds Prison, was it? He had seen it from the front, with its gleaming gates and slick visitors’ centre, but never from the back. Here an imposing brick wall stood fully fourteen feet high, topped with coils of barbed wire. Beyond the wire loomed the jagged crenellations of the jail itself, a Gothic horror against an inky sky.

Idle persons shuffled here. Jake groaned. It was an anagram! Shuffle the letters IDLE PERSONS and you got LEEDS PRISON. Griff must have lobbed the thimble over this very wall into the exercise yard beyond.

Jake and his mates in the dormitory had invented Geothimble just a few weeks ago, but it was fast becoming a craze, spreading to other houses and even other years. It was basically a high-tech version of the old-fashioned kids’ game Hunt the Thimble. Boys took it in turns to borrow an item from someone else – a shoe, a chocolate bar, a penknife, whatever – and hide it in a remote location. If the owner wanted his ‘thimble’ back, he would have to get it himself, aided only by a GPS reference and a cryptic clue. Tonight’s thimble, the object of Jake’s quest, was a cardboard folder containing his geography project that was due to be handed in the next day.

Thimbling a prison was cunning, just like Griff, but it was within the rules. Only last week Jake had posted Griff’s watch in a pillar box on the other side of town, forcing Griff to wait until the early-morning collection and plead with a postman. If this was Griff’s revenge, so be it. Jake knew he would have to go for it. That project was GCSE coursework and he had no intention of getting a U this time.

Jake exited map mode and switched on his phone’s torch to examine the barbed wire along the parapet. There was one point where there seemed to be a small gap between the bricks and the wire. With a bit of pushing and wriggling, perhaps he could get through. As for the fourteen-foot-high brick wall, well, that was also doable. He had something of a reputation among the thimblers.

Jake Knight’s a legend. He can walk up walls.

Three years previously, Jake had watched his first YouTube wall run and had decided to master wall running himself. It was the urban cool and the challenge that attracted him, but also the philosophy. Walls were bad news. Walls were the enemy of exploration. Walls proclaimed Beyond this point you may not tread. Wall running was about breaking those boundaries, mastering your environment – and yes, if truth be told, impressing your mates.

Jake stepped back and took three deep breaths, rehearsing the stunt in his mind. Then he ran towards the wall with short quick strides. His eyes were not on the wall itself but on the parapet above. Don’t focus on where you are, was his wall-run mantra. Focus on where you want to be. He gradually built up the power of his steps and jumped off his right foot. I’m a spring, he thought, a tightly coiled spring. He placed his left foot at chest level and launched himself upwards, scrabbling with his hands to gain extra height. Another small kick from his right foot, and – reach! – he grabbed the parapet with both hands. Made it!

Jake dangled from the wall, gathering all his force for the final part of the move. Explosive energy was what was needed now. And – lift off! He pulled with both arms and pushed with his insteps. A second later the adventurer was lying along the top of the parapet, his quads and biceps burning, barbed wire tugging at his clothes, looking down into the well-lit exercise yard of Leeds Prison.

Except that in his mind it was no longer Leeds Prison – it was the infamous island fortress Château d’If, and he himself was a musketeer intent on rescuing his wrongly-accused friends.

Chapter Two

The Chameleon stood in the shadows near the back of the crowd. He was eighteen years old and he wore a black cloak with a deep hood. He watched and listened as Sheikh Ahmed Abdullai Keita performed.

The sheikh’s reputation had preceded him. All along the edge of the Sahara Desert people spoke in awed whispers about the miracle man on the white stallion. Now he had arrived in the border town Mondoro in the south of Mali, and he was doing what he did best. Miracles.

The sheikh sat on a straw mat in front of the chief’s hut. He wore purple robes and a white prayer hat embroidered with sequins. Two plaited locks of hair hung down on either side of his face. He had a short pointed beard.

‘People of Mondoro!’ cried the sheikh. ‘The djinns of the desert and the djinns of the air are here in power. Prepare yourselves for a visitation.’

Ranged in a semicircle around the sheikh stood the villagers, their cheeks slack with wonder. In the last two hours the sheikh had sucked the malaria out of a sick man, made dozens of cola nuts disappear and conjured a disembodied floating head out of thin air. Now he got up and ran through the crowd towards his magnificent stallion. ‘Behold!’ he cried. ‘The djinns of the air are coming to bear me aloft on their warm invisible hands.’

With his arms stretched out on either side the sheikh lifted about two feet off the ground. The crowd behind him gasped. There was nervous laughter and cries of ‘Allahu akbar!’ – ‘God is great!’ Some cupped hands over their faces in pious supplication.

At the back of the crowd, the Chameleon narrowed his eyes and drew his cloak around him more tightly. It’s an illusion, he thought to himself. But how does he do it?

The sheikh rose a little further in the air and put his left foot into the nearside stirrup. Then he swung his right leg over the horse’s back, sat down gently and straightened his robe.

Allahu akbar!’ The cries rose on the night air.

The sheikh shook his head from side to side so that his locks swung like pendulums. Then he began to laugh – a deep, resonant laugh.

‘The djinns of the desert mock you,’ he said. ‘You think you prosper, but tragedy is near.’

‘What tragedy?’ The question rippled through the crowd.

‘You look at the sky and grin and you say to each other: in a few short weeks the rains will begin and we will sow our seed. Not so, fools! The djinns have hatched a plan. They will withhold the rain you long for. Not a drop of water will fall on Mondoro. Not a single stalk of millet will grow under the sun. Not a single peanut will form in the ground. From every eye, salt water will flow.’

‘Is there nothing we can do?’ asked one man. ‘Perhaps if we give the djinns more cola nuts—’

‘Silence!’ shouted the sheikh. ‘There is only one sacrifice that will appease the djinns of the desert. The sacrifice the djinns demand is this: fifty healthy young goats and fifty healthy young sheep. They must be taken to Senegal and sacrificed in the shallow waters of Lake Soum.’

‘Lake Soum?’ said one. ‘I’ve never even heard of it!’

‘Senegal is hundreds of miles away!’ cried another.

‘I will take pity on you,’ said the sheikh. ‘Have the animals ready by sunrise tomorrow. I will take them to Senegal and perform the sacrifice myself.’

That night the women of Mondoro wept bitterly. Sheikh Ahmed has demanded almost all the animals in the village, they said. What will be left for our children and our children’s children? A handful of old, sick goats and nothing more.

The men were adamant. We are lucky, they said, that the sheikh warned us of the djinns’ intention. It will hurt us to pay what the djinns demand, but we have no choice. We cannot risk a whole year’s harvest. There is no such thing as an easy sacrifice.

The men got their way, and the next morning Sheikh Ahmed Abdullai Keita went on his way with fifty sheep and fifty goats. As soon as he was out of sight of the villagers, he entrusted the animals to one of his servants, ordering him to take them to a faraway market and sell them for hard cash.

Crouching behind a nearby acacia bush, the Chameleon observed the whole exchange. He tutted quietly and swore that he would teach this charlatan a lesson.

Chapter Three

‘I’ve heard of people breaking out of prison,’ said Mr Joyce, the headmaster, peering over his half-moon glasses, ‘but why the devil would you break into one?’

‘Sorry,’ said Jake. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘Correct,’ said Mr Joyce, and he looked at Jake as he might have looked at a fruit fly in his compost bin.

Don’t exclude me, thought Jake. Dad will go ape if I get excluded.

‘Knight by name, nocturnal by nature, what? How long have you been creeping out at night, Knight?’

‘I don’t go every night, sir. I go when it’s my turn.’

‘When it’s your turn!’ Mr Joyce puffed out his cheeks. With his big stomach and sagging jowls, he looked like a beached walrus. ‘While Waltham College sleeps, Jake Knight slips out and paints the town red, provided it’s his turn.’

Jake was not sure what painting the town red meant, but he was fairly certain that Geothimble did not count. And unless you regarded school rules as law, it wasn’t illegal either. Geothimble was simply about conjuring adventure out of the tiresome work-eat-sleep fabric of Year-Ten boarding-school life. Plus, it was a cool excuse for Jake and his mates to use the GPS function on their phones.

‘Tell me, Knight,’ said Mr Joyce. ‘What is the motto of this school?’

Jake furrowed his brow. ‘Who dares wins?’ he guessed.

‘I believe that is the motto of the SAS,’ said the headmaster. ‘Though judging by your escapade last night, you might be more suited to the SAS than to any educational establishment.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘It was not a compliment,’ said the headmaster, sternly. ‘Besides, you don’t have nearly enough discipline for the military. You seem to have a rule allergy.’

Either that or I just crave adventure, thought Jake. What would Mr Joyce say about Lawrence of Arabia or Captain Cook? Would he diagnose them with rule allergy?

‘The school motto, Knight, is this: Ad Astra Per Aspera. Through adversity, to the stars.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Adversity, Knight. Trials. Difficulties. Have you ever experienced adversity?’

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘How much did your phone cost?’

None of your business, thought Jake. ‘Three hundred pounds, sir,’ he said.

‘Three hundred pounds. And how old are you?’

‘Fifteen, sir.’

Fifteen! It’s no wonder you’ve gone off the rails, Knight. You’ve never known adversity.’

Hadn’t he? Here he was, cooped up in a stuffy English boarding school, while his parents and his sister, Kirsty, lived their African adventure under an ever-smiling sun. He hadn’t asked to go to boarding school. The decision, as always, had been made for him.

The headmaster was warming to the adversity theme. ‘Have you ever been hungry or thirsty, Knight? Have you ever been in need? Have you ever had to choose between food and medicine?’

‘No, sir,’ said Jake.

‘Have you ever faced up to a metaphorical giant, armed only with a metaphorical sling and five small stones?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Of course you haven’t. You are the son of a British ambassador. You bask in entitlement. You click your fingers and the stars drop out of the sky into your lap. You lack for nothing.’

Hang on, thought Jake. Griff may be like that, but not me. I could click my fingers all day and get nothing but blistered fingertips. It took me a whole summer of freelance web-design to buy that phone. I earned it.

‘Sorry, sir,’ was all he said.

The door opened and Jake’s housemaster, Mr Blake, shuffled in. Mr Blake greeted the headmaster and nodded mournfully at Jake.

Don’t tell me I’m excluded, thought Jake, again.

‘I asked Mr Blake to be present,’ said the headmaster, ‘because I have the unpleasant duty to inform you that you will be leaving us.’

I’m dead, thought Jake.

‘I’m going to nip this Geothimble in the bud,’ said Mr Joyce, ‘and in doing so, I’m going to make an example of you, Knight. You have too much technology and too little moral fibre. As of this moment you are suspended.’

Mr Blake flinched and gazed at Jake with shining eyes, as if his pupil had just been voted off some reality TV show. Jake half expected him to whip out a screen and play a video montage of ‘Your Highlights in the House’.

‘How long for, sir?’

‘For the rest of term.’

Jake blew out his cheeks. He was so relieved he felt like jumping up onto the headmaster’s desk and dancing a fandango. He would miss six weeks of school and a bit of GCSE coursework, but that was all.

‘We will be informing your parents, of course,’ said the headmaster, ‘so that they can make the necessary arrangements. I imagine you will be flying out to Upper Volta to join them, what?’

Upper Volta? Mr Joyce was forty years out of date. The tiny West African country was no longer a French colony, and it was certainly no longer called Upper Volta. Today it was an independent state, Burkina Faso, home to sixteen million people including Mum, Dad and his sister, Kas. Jake looked out of the window and thought of Africa. He would not be sorry to see the back of Waltham College. Leeds was no place for an adventurer.

‘I will phone your father later this morning,’ the headmaster was saying. ‘As for you, Knight, you will pack your belongings and leave Waltham College by sundown tomorrow. The secretary will email you any GCSE coursework in due course. Do your assignments, reform your character and perhaps we will be seeing you in the summer term.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Jake stood up to go.

‘Just one more thing, Knight.’ The headmaster gazed over his spectacles, small eyes shining in his flabby face. ‘How the devil did you climb a sheer wall three times your height?’

Chapter Four

Mesdames et Messieurs, we have arrived at Ouagadougou International Airport. The time is 9.15 p.m., and the temperature is thirty-two degrees centigrade.’

According to Jake’s GPS, Ouagadougou was due south of Leeds. But the shared longitude was where any similarity ended. Here in Burkina Faso the sun shone from dawn till dusk and life was one long adventure.

Jake hid his phone in a sock and shoved it into a dark corner of his carry-on bag. Wouldn’t want to be charged import duty on something that wasn’t even brand-new. He made his way off the plane in a heat-induced daze, down the steps two at a time, on and off a crowded shuttle bus, through the various checkpoints – passport, immunisation papers, visa – around a dilapidated luggage carousel, past four nimble-fingered customs officers – don’t look in the sock – and out into the airport forecourt. Taxi drivers pressed around him, eager for custom.

It felt good to be back in Burkina Faso, as if a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders. This was Jake’s fifth visit to the country, and it looked like it would be the longest ever – half the spring term and all of the Easter holidays – ten whole weeks of freedom. Here he could truly be himself, seizing each day as it came with no thought for the next. Here his life would not be regulated by clanging bells and finger-wagging teachers. In Africa time did not matter. Everyone just went with the flow.

‘You are two hours late!’ bayed a no-nonsense English voice, and the gaggle of taxi drivers parted to let Jake’s father through. He looked the same as ever: tall, angular and harrassed. Worry lines furrowed his brow and his close-cropped beard glistened with sweat.

‘Hello, Dad,’ said Jake.

‘Hello indeed. What’s this blinking Geothimble?’

Jake had not expected his father to have calmed down much since they talked on the phone.

‘It’s basically a techno version of Hunt the Thimble,’ he said. ‘Gran taught me that.’

‘Did she indeed? And I suppose Gran also taught you how to be a tearaway and how to break into prisons and how to get yourself booted out of one of the finest schools in England. Now follow me, quickly.’

‘Did you come on the motorbike?’ asked Jake, half-running to keep up.

‘Yes.’

They weaved through the jostling crowd and out into the floodlit car park. There, gleaming on its stand, stood his father’s BMW Dakar tour bike. With its sleek curves and broad handlebars, it looked more like a prize bull than a bike.

They tied the bags to the back of the Dakar and got on. ‘Do you want to know what really infuriates me in all of this?’ asked Mr Knight, pulling on his leather gloves. ‘The thing that appals me to the core of my being?’

‘Go on,’ said Jake.

‘It’s the fact that I heard the news about your suspension from your sister a full two hours before Mr Joyce rang, and four hours before you rang. And how did Kirsty know you’d been suspended? Where had she happened upon this toothsome morsel of news?’

Oops, thought Jake.

‘Twitter!’ exploded the ambassador and he gave the start pedal a ferocious kick.

The bike burst into life with a deep throaty roar. Biking was Mr Knight’s hobby, although the word hobby hardly did justice to the fervent passion that he bestowed on his BMW Dakar.

‘Have you made any more modifications to the bike?’ asked Jake.

‘Don’t try and change the subject!’ snapped Mr Knight, pulling out onto the main road. ‘As a matter of fact, I have,’ he added. ‘You can’t see it from where you are, but I’ve fitted a bash plate all along the underside, with a hidden chamber in it.’

‘What’s in the hidden chamber?’

‘You name it, it’s in there. Tool kit, spare parts, ration pack, distress flares, glow sticks, first-aid kit, survival blanket, vitamin C, salt, water-purification tablets and six litres of water.’

‘Cool.’

‘Yes, the whole chamber is insulated to protect it from engine heat. I managed to find some desert rally tyres too. They’re filled with race mousse instead of air, so they don’t deflate even if they get punctured.’

‘Nice.’

‘Then I reinforced the sub-frame, doubled the size of the fuel tank, fitted stronger bearings in the gearbox, replaced the suspension shocks and tuned the engine for maximum performance – listen!’

Ambassador Knight pulled out into the fast lane and gunned the throttle. Jake’s knuckles whitened on the chrome hand-grips and he had to tense his neck to stop his head flying off. There was no denying it: this bike was a demon.

As they shot through the dark streets of Ouagadougou, Jake looked around him. He had been here four times before, always in school holidays, and he had loved it every time. Engine oil, charcoal and warm earth in his nostrils, Bob Marley in his ears, warm Ouaga air in his lungs. Magic.

They were out of the city centre now and zooming hell-for-leather along Avenue Charles de Gaulle. Past the president’s palace with its whitewashed walls and its platoon of elite gendarmes always on patrol. Past the university with its dingy bars and photocopy booths. Past the open-air market with its spice stalls, bread baskets and cabinets of scrawny, ever-rotating chickens.

Just before the Save the Children bureau, Jake’s father closed the throttle and veered deftly into a side street. This was Zone du Bois, the leafiest and richest district in Ouagadougou. A minute later they arrived on Embassy Row and pulled up outside the gates of the British Embassy.

Saalu, the night guard, shook Jake’s hand and smiled his gap-toothed smile. ‘Bonsoir, Jake,’ he said.

Ça va, Saalu?’ said Jake. There were lots of African languages spoken in Burkina Faso, but the official language was French. Jake was nearly fluent. French was his best subject at school and he had practised it with increasing success on each of his African visits.

The night guard used a mirror on a long stick to examine the underside of the bike, checking for explosive devices. Then he stepped aside and slid open the heavy metal gates. The BMW prowled up the gravel path and stopped under a thatched gazebo. On one side was the embassy, on the other was the family home. Round the back were Mum’s beehives and a small swimming pool. If bikes were Dad’s passion, bees were Mum’s. She was crazy about them.

Kas came running out and threw her arms around Jake. She was taller than he remembered, and had taken to wearing black eye make-up.

‘No!’ cried Jake. ‘Don’t tell me my little sis has gone emo.’

‘Better than going ASBO,’ replied Kas, quick as a flash. ‘How’s life in the Bradford-Leeds criminal underworld?’

‘Thirteen is too young for black eye make-up.’

‘Fifteen is too young for prison-breaking.’

‘Where’s Mum?’

‘Round the back, messing with her precious bees. She’ll be here in a minute.’

‘I can’t believe you told Dad about me getting suspended.’

‘Seemed like the right thing to do. How come you managed to get into the prison but not out?’

‘I tried loads of times, but there was this mare of an overhang on the inside of the wall. I couldn’t get any grip at all.’

‘Bizarre. Anyone would think they had designed the prison to stop people escaping.’ Kas did an elaborate curtsey before rabbiting on. ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t play any Geek-o-Thimble here in Ouaga, Jake. Most of the walls are topped with broken glass.’

Jake shrugged. ‘I’m not scared of a bit of glass,’ he said.

‘Well, just be careful,’ Kas warned. ‘And if you ever use my hair straighteners as thimble, I’ll drown you in the swimming pool.’

Jake laughed. It was good to see Kas again. And there was definitely no need for Geothimble here in Africa. Geothimble was about staving off boredom, and here he never got bored. Here in Africa, stuff happened.

Chapter Five

The Chameleon sat in the shade of a baobab tree within sight of the Petagoli well. He had been waiting since sunrise and so far there was no sign of the sheikh and his travelling party. Rumour had it that the sheikh had crossed the border into Burkina Faso two days ago and was heading for Djibo, ancient seat of the Jelgooji kings. He should be passing this way either today or tomorrow.

The Chameleon was wearing his shepherding disguise: a loose cotton garment and conical hat. He carried a crooked staff and had a water bottle slung over his shoulder.

Shortly after mid-afternoon prayers his patience was rewarded. A white stallion loped into view, its golden bridle glinting in the sun. Atop the horse sat the familiar figure of the sheikh, resplendent in his purple robes and white prayer hat. His minstrel was mounted on a second horse and five servants followed on foot.

The Chameleon ran to the well, lowered the bucket and flicked the rope deftly to fill it up with water. The sheikh’s travelling party drew level with the well and stopped.

‘Sheikh Ahmed Abdullai Keita of Senegal!’ cried the minstrel. ‘Beloved of God, Friend of Djinns, Pillar of Righteousness!’

The Chameleon threw himself face down on the ground in front of the stallion. ‘I am only a simple shepherd boy,’ he said, ‘but I know the name Sheikh Ahmed Abdullai Keita. The reputation of Sheikh Ahmed wafts before him like the fragrance of heaven. Welcome to Burkina Faso, Your Excellency. In the name of Allah, allow me to water your horses.’

‘Be quick about it,’ snapped the sheikh. ‘I must be in Djibo before nightfall.’

‘Forgive my impudence,’ said the Chameleon, ‘but what you propose is quite impossible, unless your horses have wings, which I do not discount.’

‘I was told we were close.’

‘Close!’ The Chameleon chuckled as if at a good joke. ‘I was born here and I know every tree in the province. From here to Djibo is one hundred ghalva as the herder bird flies, and not one ghalva less.’

The sheikh turned to his navigator-minstrel and began to remonstrate with him. The minstrel shrugged and held up his hands, bewildered by this new information.

The Chameleon gave the horses water and patted their noses as they drank. So far the encounter was going according to plan.

After an urgent conference with his minstrel, Sheikh Ahmed summoned the shepherd boy. ‘Tell me, boy,’ he said. ‘Who is the emir in these parts?’

‘My father is the emir,’ said the Chameleon, ‘and I beg you to say no more, for I understand already what you need. My father is a hospitable man. He is away on business at present, but my brothers and I would be honoured to welcome you in his stead. You can stay at our humble settlement for as long as you wish.’

Chapter Six

The day after Jake’s arrival, the Knight family was invited to a banquet at the Hotel Libya – a celebration of ten years since commercial gold-mining had started in the north of Burkina. Jake wore a jacket and one of his dad’s ties. Kas wore a black dress, her skull-bow necklace and even more eyeliner than usual.

‘It’s way more than ten years since those gold mines started,’ said Kas in the car on the way to the hotel. ‘Africans have been mining gold there for hundreds of years.’

‘So what?’ said Jake.

not