Why Stop At Vengeance

an excerpt



Chapter 1

When he walked into my office, my first thought was that John Suruma might have been one of the so-called lost boys of Sudan. He had told me on the phone he was Ugandan, but he was charcoal-colored, and tall and skinny as a young eucalyptus, and he had that look of hurt wonderment I recalled from pictures of the boys who had fled the horrors of the Sudanese civil war and then somehow ended up in places like Minneapolis.

"Mr. Strachey, thank you for receiving me," he said, his language and his handshake formal, and with a smile that looked more apprehensive than eager. He had long fingers, plenty of teeth, and he was dressed for the unseasonably cool mid-May weather in a bulky black jacket. I could see him give my office a quick onceover, a young man who had learned to be alert to his surroundings. The place was no more kempt than usual, but I guessed Suruma was accustomed to a certain degree of disorder, and it turned out I was right about that.

"Is that...who are those musicians in that picture?" he asked. "Is it Jay Z? I can't see his face."

Suruma was squinting over at a framed photo nailed to the wall, one of the semi-famous images of Miles Davis in a New York jazz club in the 1950s playing with his back to the audience. I explained who the renowned horn player was, as well as the three other musicians looking gravely into the camera.

"Is Miles Davis conducting the orchestra? That is why he is showing his back to the people?"

"No, he just didn't like audiences, especially all the white people in them."

A somber look. "Ah, Jim Crow."

"Not in New York City, not exactly. But race relations were complicated even there."

"Was Miles Davis gay?" he asked, looking hopeful.

"I don't think so. I would say no."

"But you are, are you not?"

"Gay as a sun bonnet."

"I was told you are Albany's gay Dirty Harry."

Where on earth had he heard that? "Well, I hope not."

"I had to ask the man who described you that way, who is Dirty Harry? Does Donald Strachey not bathe?" Suruma couldn't help grinning now, and I guessed he was a man who smiled easily under more relaxed circumstances.

"I try to stay just clean enough. No, the Clint Eastwood character was a kind of fascist policeman who believed in order but not in law. And I don't like cops who are out of control, even if they think their intentions are good. Cops like that are usually rationalizing some kind of bad inclinations."

His look darkened again. "Yes, my friend explained to me Dirty Harry, the guy in the movie. You wouldn't like Kampala. In Kampala all the cops are out of control."

"So I've heard."

"They do not have good intentions."

"I've read about the anti-gay stuff. The blackmail and the beatings, and this year the terrible anti-gay law."

"Yes, it is very bad now. It is why I cannot go home."

"You'd go to prison?"

"Of course. I was the president of Gay Sunrise, and I am known to the police."

"I'm sorry."

"I have applied for asylum in the U.S., and my attorney at GLAAD in New York City believes I will receive it."

"Obama is so much better than Bush on these things. But it's a rotten thing to have to leave your country in order to even exist as a gay person."

Suruma had taken a seat on the ratty easy chair Timothy Callahan and I had hauled up to Albany from his Aunt Moira's garage in Poughkeepsie after her passing. The chair must have been older than she was, and she was 97 when her soul flew up to Altar and Rosary Sodality Heaven.

"If I returned home to Uganda," Suruma said, "prison might be the best thing that could happen to me. Even the people who passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act professed that this would be so. Pastor Isaac Baba gave a sermon I attended where he told the Christians--these people who call themselves Christians--that prison will be good for the homos."

"How so?"

"He said all the homos will be safe in prison. It is better, he said, than being clawed and hacked by a mob."

If Suruma had been talking about Ohio or even Idaho, I'd have considered him paranoid or possibly deranged. But I knew that in parts of Africa what he was saying was just a matter of fact.

I said, "I've read that American evangelicals were instrumental in promoting the Ugandan anti-gay laws. You probably know that these nut cases are losing the culture wars here, so they've gone to countries like yours where people are apparently more susceptible to their hooey."

"Hooey?"

"Nonsense. Craziness."

"Ah, of course. Balderdash."

"Where did you go to school, John?"

"Makerere University in Kampala. I founded the GLBT organization there ten years ago. It is closed down now, of course. The new law makes what it calls aiding and abetting homosexuality illegal."

"At least," I said, "the death penalty for habitual same-sex behavior was dropped before the law was passed. The international pressure accomplished at least that much, no?"

Suruma gave a little head wobble, like Mr. Bobblehead or Manmohan Singh. I guessed that somewhere along the line he'd had Indian teachers, or maybe this was a traditional Ugandan version of an it's-a-bit-more-complicated-than-that gesture.

He said, "The threat of an aid cut-off by America and European countries did make a difference in the final bill that passed. But I am sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Strachey, that after a degree of aid was actually reduced, some valuable HIV drug programs that many gay people depended upon were shut down. Friends at home have emailed me, in fact, saying ‘Tell them not to cut the aid! We are suffering even more!'"

"Oh hell. So then what can foreign governments do to help?"

A feeble shrug. "I don't know. I only know what I must do."

"Can you help in any way here in the U.S.? You said you weren't going back, and I understand how dangerous that would be. And probably futile."

He drummed his fingers on the armrests of Aunt Moira's chair. "That is why I have come to you, Mr. Strachey. I believe you can help me achieve my goal."

Suruma had been vague on the phone with me the day before, and I had been curious as to how an East African in Albany with a precarious visa situation might need the services of an independent private investigator. He had lawyers from a good gay legal organization working for him--pro bono, I assumed--so where might a paid operative such as myself come into the picture? And what was this Dirty Harry stuff?

His high dark arc of a forehead was glistening with perspiration now, and Suruma stood up and took his jacket off. He was all elbows and arms ten yards long, and there was a mild swish to his movements that I supposed would not have gone down well with the sexual-orientation police back in Kampala. He had on a yellow T-shirt with a rainbow flag on the front, and as he sat back down and gripped Aunt Moira's armrests again, I noted what seemed to be a sizeable scar on his left wrist.

"I wish to speak to you candidly," Suruma said. "Are you like an attorney? Is everything I say to you what may be termed strictly confidential?"

"Private investigators don't work under the same legal constraints lawyers do. But the more ethical practitioners among us can be trusted to keep our mouths shut, and I am one of those. John, mum's the word."

"All right, Mr. Strachey. If you are swearing on the life of your mum, there is no more I can ask of you."

I wasn't sure if he wasn't being droll. I'd been to Nigeria once, where idiomatic English was part of the West African verbal landscape, but maybe East Africa was different.

I said, "Fine," and waited.

Suruma twisted in his chair, and crossed and uncrossed his legs. After a moment, his face suddenly taut with what looked like pain, he said, "They killed Gabriel. Gabriel Bigombe."

"Who was Gabriel Bigombe?"

He took a deep breath. "Gabriel was the recording secretary of Q-Team, a gay organization in Kampala. And Gabriel Bigombe was my first lover."

"I see. Who are ‘they'?"

Not ready to answer that question yet, he went on grimly about the murdered man. "Gabriel and I attended the same Catholic secondary school. That was fifteen years ago, and when I realized I wanted to touch and kiss boys instead of girls, I told Gabriel about this because I suspected he was like me. And I was right. We went to the forest whenever we could, and there were four other boys who were like us and they went with us. We hugged and kissed and we had lovely orgasms. We were very naïve children and we didn't think anybody would particularly care."

"Gay kids everywhere do this, and some who aren't so gay but are just young and randy."

"Yes," Suruma said, "I think everywhere in the whole world including Uganda. But there are many homophobic people in Uganda. A boy named David saw us in the forest performing our sweet intimacies and he informed the headmaster. The headmaster told the police, and they came and took us to jail and beat us. Then our parents came and took us all home and we were not permitted to return to that school. My father sent me to a different Christian school, but Gabriel's family was ashamed and they disowned him, and he was not able to continue his education. He found work in a bicycle shop, and he resided in a refrigerator crate previously occupied by some Somalis who left the container vacant when they returned to their country."

"He sounds resourceful."

"He did what he needed to do in order to survive, Mr. Strachey. Sometimes Gabriel rode his bicycle the six miles to my house when my parents were visiting my grandmother in Entebbe and we made love. But our nosey-parker neighbor Hiram Ruhindi observed Gabriel come and go under cover of darkness, and he informed my father. Father told me that Gabriel was a homo criminal, and he demanded that I must not consort with such a person. This was several years before my mother and father accepted the fact that I am what I am and then informed me that I was no longer their son."

Suruma held my gaze as he related this sorry tale, but he fidgeted too, and I guessed that it wasn't just the re-telling of his story that was making him tense, but what it was he was leading up to.

I said, "So you broke off with Gabriel?"

"I had no choice if I was to continue my education. In Uganda if you have no higher education you are lost, economically speaking. Gabriel and I remained friends, however, even after he entered into an intimate relationship with the son of the bicycle shop owner, and I entered into a very discreet relationship with another boy, Daniel, at my new school. And later, when Gabriel and I were both active in GLBT organizations in Kampala, our friendship became deep again but without the sexual element included in it. We both had other boyfriends by then, but we shared political passions and those can be very powerful, too."

"They can."

"Such passions can have an impact for good or ill. These political passions were for good in our case. I believe you will concur in that."

"I will."

"Gabriel and I were among the first gay people in Kampala to see the danger coming from the American evangelicals, especially Chip Salisbury. Ugandans are a generally tolerant people--we have several tribes and languages and we have learned to get along with people and their differences. So a gay subculture was accepted in Uganda going back many years. There were gay clubs, and discreet relationships, and of course there was prostitution as a service for the closeted married chaps and for the foreign tourists. What I am saying is, until Pastor Salisbury and his evangelical gang of thugs arrived three years ago, a gay man or woman in Uganda need not have feared for his or her life."

I said, "Pastor Chip Salisbury. He's here in the Albany area, right?"

Suruma nodded, and I started getting inklings as to why he had come to see "the gay Dirty Harry" and where this might be going.

"Chip Salisbury is pastor of the International House of Faith in Defreestville," Suruma said. "His congregation in this area is not large, but through his nationwide fundraising efforts, the pastor wields influence much greater than his base hereabouts suggests he might. In point of fact, it was his Protect Our Children rally, so-called, in Kampala that set off the Ugandan anti-gay savage hysteria. The pastor invited the most homophobic legislators in the nation to his revival service, and then he sermonized fervently about the way ‘the homos,' as he refers to us, were corrupting Ugandan children and recruiting them into a lifestyle that God hated. He called gay people animals and devils, and he said God wanted our government to eliminate homosexuality from life in Uganda. That was the word he used--‘eliminate.' He said Hitler was gay, and ‘the homos' were behind the slaughter in Rwanda."

I had read about this lunacy and seen occasional television reports and I had been repelled by it. But it was chilling all over again to be face to face with one of Chip Salisbury's actual victims. My cell vibrated, but I didn't even look to see who was calling, and signaled for Suruma to continue.

"The thousands of Ugandan evangelicals attending that first anti-gay rally," he went on coolly, "were stomping and moaning and yelling ‘Save us from the homos, Jesus!' And then they really went wild when Pastor Chip brought on Pastor Isaac Baba. Somewhere Salisbury had discovered an old black and white S-and-M porno film of a stout gay man in leather eating fecal matter that came from another man's rectum--I had never even heard of such incredible practices. They showed this film on a huge screen, and Pastor Baba was screaming "This is what they do! This is what the homos do! They eat the poo-poo!" And of course by then the crowd was shrieking and falling down and praying for Jesus to eliminate all the depraved homos in Uganda. Afterwards, Chip Salisbury and Pastor Baba and some other so-called experts on homosexuality who had accompanied Pastor Chip from America met with the anti-gay legislators. And six months later the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced in Parliament."

Suruma sat looking at me sitting across from him being speechless. I had shut my office window against the chilly weather and the afternoon traffic commotion down on Central Avenue, but now my inclination was to open the window. I turned and lifted the sash an inch and a half and jammed the sixteen-year-old copy of the World Almanac that I kept around for this purpose between the sash and the windowsill. It had been a number of years since this window had stayed up on its own, but who could care about such petty nuisances?

I said, "I take it there is some connection between what you have just described to me, John, and the death of Gabriel Bigombe."

"Just so."

"Fill me in."

He leaned forward and then back and then forward again. "Have you any water?" he asked.

I reached over and retrieved from the shelf next to my desk a small unopened bottle of Dasani--which sounded like an African name, but I had read that it had been invented by marketing experts--and I handed it to Suruma. He uncapped the bottle and drank from it.

After a moment, he set the bottle down and said, "After the anti-gay law was passed, a tabloid newspaper called Red Pepper published a front-page article entitled ‘The 200 Top Gays in Uganda.' Most of the men and women listed were in fact gay, although some people somehow were included on the list erroneously, probably because somebody somewhere wished to get even with them for something."

"That sounds plausible."

"I was on the Red Pepper list, and that is when my troubles began in earnest. I was forced to hide. The police were looking for me--perhaps to arrest me but probably to extort money from me. I was on the move constantly, hiding here and hiding there, until I was able to make my way to Kenya and then, with the help of a Norwegian friend, to Oslo and then to New York. Amnesty International helped me, as did other kind people."

"I'm glad you escaped," was all I could think to say.

"But Gabriel was not so fortunate as I. No, not by a long shot."

"What happened?"

"Gabriel by then had a small house he owned off the Entebbe Road. His immediate neighbors knew who he was and that he was gay, and he mistakenly felt safe in that locale. But Red Pepper had published Gabriel's home address, along with those of others on their malevolent list. And some evil men who just wanted to create an anti-gay ruckus got a mob together after church one day, and they descended on Gabriel's house. I think many of these fellows merely wished to beat Gabriel. But the instigators were particularly savage. They found him inside, kicked and clubbed him, and they tied the injured Gabriel to his bed. Then they went out and, employing petrol someone had thought to bring along, they set his small house alight."

"No one tried to intervene?"

"No one dared to. Anybody who assisted the homo might have been arrested or even tossed into the flames. A neighbor reported the matter to the police later in the day, not as an accusation but simply as a point of information about a neighborhood small conflagration."

Suruma sat looking at me. A few moments ago he was fidgety and perspiring, but now he was still, and he had a look that was stone cold.

I said, "I take it Gabriel died."

"He cried out for a few minutes, but not for so terribly long, the neighbors said."

"And is Gabriel's murder the reason you have come to ask for my help, John?"

"Yes, Mr. Strachey. I blame Pastor Chip Salisbury for Gabriel's grotesque death. I wish to hire you to burn his church down. Preferably with him in it."