Cloud shadows carpeted the African countryside as a privately
owned matatu rattled along the dusty lorry route toward the capital.
Four passengers had been on board as it rolled out of Kyotera just past
daybreak. Now, as the bus neared Kampala, every seat was taken,
with nine men standing, gripping the overhead straps. Several transistor
radios played incongruously—gospel, raga, soca—their signals
becoming clearer as the city loomed. The passengers were villagers
and farmers, many of them carrying goods to sell at the open-air markets
of the city: Nile perch and tilapia, tomatoes and maize, basketware,
gourds, kikoy cloth.
In a worn wicker seat at the rear of the bus, a wizened banana
farmer clutched a bark-cloth package and gazed through the sweating
bodies at a spout of rain in the distant terraced hillside. The man
wore a vacant expression, although occasionally he stole glances at
the other passengers: at the young bearded man who nipped from a
flask; at the toothless woman seated in front of him, who kept falling
asleep against the window; at the burly, bare-chested man—the
only one facing backwards—who held a panting dog in his arms; at
the tall, handsome woman with the lovely profile on the aisle. The
man was careful not to make eye contact with them, though, or to
give any of the passengers reason to notice him. He had been paid
to make a delivery in Kampala, and the only thing on his mind this
morning was the cold bottle of pombe—fermented banana beer—and
the plate of mkate mayai that he would enjoy once he returned home.
He did not think about what he was delivering, or why it might be
important to someone. That was not part of his job.
The farmer closed his eyes as they came to another makeshift village,
where women were washing clothes in a creek beside the road.
When he looked out again, he saw cane and cassava fields and then
a gathering of people by a banana grove, dressed up as if for church.
Two of the men, he saw, before averting his eyes, were leaning on
shovels. It was the fourth funeral they had passed since leaving
The road took them past a roadhouse, where sunken-cheeked
women watched blankly from under a cloth awning, and into a
sprawling neighborhood of ramshackle apartments and merchant
stands, where the air was smoky from roasting meats. As downtown
came into view, the farmer remembered traveling here as a boy, in
the years before the dictators—the shouting merchants, the bleating
horns, the pungent scent of spices from the food stands, the buses and
boda-bodas, the chaotic excitement of so many people sharing space
The man got off the bus near Bombo Road and walked into the
open-air market, as he had been instructed, keeping his eyes on the
cracked pavement. He breathed the beef and lamb smoke, the spiced
vegetables, looking at no one until he found a booth far in the back,
belonging to a fish merchant named Robinson. A nod, pre-arranged.
The man spoke the sentence he had been instructed to repeat:
“A fresh delivery for Mr. Robinson.” He was handed an envelope
containing five hundred thousand Ugandan shillings—about two
hundred dollars. No one else saw the exchange. Sweating in the midafternoon
heat, the farmer walked back toward Bombo Road and the
matatu that would take him home.
Monday, September 14, Kampala, Uganda
Charles Mallory waited in a third-story room of the old colonial-
style hotel on Kampala Road, studying the foot traffic below,
watching for men traveling alone or for anything that didn’t fit.
He liked the haphazardness of this neighborhood—a hodgepodge
of apartment houses, food markets, pavement stalls—and the cover
it lent him. For the past eight months, Charles Mallory had been
working on a single project—a puzzle that had become a labyrinth
of unexpected turns, finally leading him here, to this busy street in
downtown Kampala. A project his father had handed to him just days
before his death.
From a paper cup he drank the last of the sweet tea he had bought
from a merchant down the street, listening to the chuk-chuk-chuk of the
ceiling fan in his room, alert for any unexpected sound or movement.
Then he checked his watch: 12:46. Paul Bahdru was late.
Mallory had invested seven days in arranging this meeting, communicating
with Paul through encrypted messages and other, less
conventional, means. They had devised a system that was virtually
impenetrable—or so it had seemed: a series of short, cryptic communiqués,
based on patterns and information that only the two of them
could know. It was Paul’s idea that the exchange take place here, at
a café in the bustling neighborhood where he had once lived. The
meeting would be brief: Bahdru would arrive first, purchase a coffee
and take a seat. When Charles Mallory determined that Paul was not
under surveillance, he would go downstairs and enter the café. Paul
would pass him his message and an envelope; they would separate. It
would be over in less than three minutes.
Charles Mallory’s work as a private intelligence contractor often
required him to deal with government power brokers and morally
ambiguous businessmen who spoke their own duplicitous languages.
But Paul Bahdru was not like that—he was reliable and honorable,
and one of the bravest men Charles knew. Over the past several weeks,
Bahdru had learned details of a “high-stakes war,” as he called it, that
wasn’t yet visible. Some of the information he had already passed to
Charles Mallory; today, he would give him the most important. A
specific date. Locations. Along with photos and documentation.
Mallory and Bahdru had first met in Nairobi in 1998, when
Charles Mallory was stationed in Kenya under State Department
cover. Bahdru was a journalist then, a reporter for the Daily Nation,
Kenya’s largest newspaper. Through a single source, he had learned
the sketchy details of a plot against American embassies in Kenya
and Tanzania. Mallory had met with him early one morning in a coffee
shop on Radio Road, and afterward relayed what he was told to
Washington—details too vague to be acted upon, although the plot,
of course, had been carried out.
Bahdru eventually left Nairobi, and journalism, but he continued
to write. His essays angered several high-level African politicians and
quasi-intellectuals, who considered him a dissident and dismissed
his writings as Western-tainted propaganda—perpetuating the cliché
of Africa as a continent sinking in corruption and ethnic strife.
Not long after Paul resettled in the West African nation of Buttata,
his wife was brutally raped and murdered during a supposed home
robbery—a crime never “solved”—and Paul himself was detained in
solitary confinement for seven days for writings deemed “treasonous”
by the government. But Bahdru’s travails had made him more determined
than embittered; what he discovered had to be known; and,
finally, it would be.
Charles Mallory studied the sightlines between the café and the
windows of the adjacent buildings, attentive to anything unusual,
recounting the tenuous threads that had led him here, coming
together and, it seemed, now unraveling. Remembering details,
phrases. “The ill wind that will come through . . . Witness to something
that hasn’t happened yet . . . the October project.”
He had checked in at the hotel fifty-three minutes earlier,
using the name on his passport and identification card—Frederick
Collins—not the one on his driver’s license.
Clearly, the meeting had been compromised. For whatever reason,
Paul Bahdru was not going to show. The “why” would have to
be determined later. Now, he had to find safe passage out.
He zipped up his bag and took a last look at the people walking
along the wet, smoky pavement, seeing around the edges of things
now. This was Charles Mallory’s first visit to Kampala in many years.
He had been pleased, after arriving from Nairobi on a Kenya Airways
flight that morning, to find the city on its feet again, with functioning
utilities, clean water, crowded restaurants. Although in many
ways—some obvious, others not—it was still a city rebounding from
the civil war that followed the 1979 overthrow of Idi Amin. As with
many African countries, Uganda was a patchwork of tribes and customs,
its boundaries drawn by nineteenth-century British colonists
who had come here to mine the region’s wealth. It was a sad tale
that he had seen replicated in different ways in a number of Africa’s
fifty-three countries, many of which had become breeding grounds
for corruption and dictatorship.
Charles Mallory heard a sound: A sudden rain exploded on the tin
awning above the window. He froze. Moments later, another sound.
He took a deliberate breath and reached for the telephone.
“Mr. Collins.” He listened to the other man breathing. “Hello, sir.
A package has arrived for you at the front desk. Just delivered,” the
man said, speaking with a lilting Ugandan accent.
Mallory felt his pulse quicken slightly. A package. Who could know
he was here?
“Yes. I’ll be right down.”
He went out, down the creaky wooden steps and along the flagstone
path to the office. It was raining heavily now, thudding on the
tin roofs and apartment awnings; scents of wet brick and dirt and
tree bark mixed with car exhaust and the smells of meat roasting in
the sidewalk stalls. Merchants huddled under plastic wraps and trash
bags. It was just an hour past midday but dark like evening.
The clerk in the office was the same one who had checked him
in. A thin-faced man with small, curious eyes and a slight twist to
his upper lip, which gave the impression that he was smiling when
he wasn’t. The man reached under the counter and set a bark-cloth
package on top of the desk. A small, florist-sized envelope was taped
to it, with his name, “Frederick Collins.”
“Who brought this?”
The clerk watched him steadily, his brow furrowing. “I don’t
Mallory turned. Through the wet, greasy side window he saw the
café down the street, where he and Paul were to have met. Above it,
laundry blowing on a line, battered now by the rain.
“What did he look like?”
The clerk lifted his shoulders, as if he didn’t understand. Charles
Mallory fished fifty thousand Ugandan shillings from his pocket.
“Not a man,” he said. “A woman. Car stopped outside. A woman
delivered it and walked out.” He looked to the window and, for a
moment, may have grinned.
The desk clerk gazed back at him, as if a question hadn’t been
Mallory took the package and walked quickly across the terrace,
ducked against the rain, and took the stairs two and three at a time
back to the room. He closed the door and twisted the deadbolt. 1:04.
Okay. He looked back at the street, at the windows of the other
buildings, searching for a set of eyes that might be watching him,
a curtain pulled back. Nothing. Then he sat on the bed and sliced
open the envelope, careful not to leave fingerprints. The envelope
contained a single business card, with a name on it, in block letters:
Paul Bahdru. “With Regrets” was scrawled in smeared black ink
Using a dry washrag, Charles Mallory placed the card and tape
back in the envelope and tucked it inside a plastic wrapper in his bag.
He sat on the edge of the bed under the chuk-chuk-chuk of the fan
and began to pick apart the tightly wound bark cloth. It was rectangular,
narrower than manuscript pages or a photo book. He stopped
for a moment to listen to the rain, to make sure it was only that—
rain, beating the tin roof. Down below, tires skidded. Horns sounded.
What had gone wrong? Had someone followed? Or perhaps Paul
Bahdru was watching now, from another window, wanting to make
sure no one saw them together. Questions to be answered later.
Suddenly, Mallory jerked upright.
He clawed faster at the edges of the bark cloth, pulling the
Styrofoam stuffing from the box.
“No! God dammit!”
The contents of the package stared back at him. It was Paul
Bahdru—his head. The open eyes looked right at him through a thin,
soiled plastic—the corners of his mouth upturned slightly, as if smiling
at some final ambiguity.
Wednesday, September 16
Twenty-six hundred and seventy-three miles away, in the
Republic of Sundiata, Dr. Sandra Oku gazed numbly through her
dusty windshield at the late afternoon light in the baobab trees, the
fields of bell peppers and potatoes and cassava, and the devastation
that had come to her village overnight.
Dr. Oku was the only health-care worker in the tiny village of
Kaarta, in the Kuseyo Valley. Designated a “district medical officer,”
she provided antiretroviral drugs to the farmers and villagers
when they became available and tried to help anyone else who
walked through her door—mothers and children, mostly, suffering
from chronic diarrhea or skin infections or malnutrition. Many she
couldn’t help, and sent to the hospital in Tihka.
She was a long-limbed, graceful woman, with large, perceptive eyes
and thick hair she braided and clasped back every morning. Until that
day, she had been living her life in Kaarta with a dream—the sort of
dream that most of the villagers could not afford. After the rainy season,
she had planned to travel nearly a thousand miles to visit a man
she had not seen in months—seven months next week, to be precise.
A man she had met in medical school, and with whom she expected
eventually to share her life. But there was no room in her thoughts
anymore for dreams; real life had suddenly closed in.
Dr. Oku’s most important work wasn’t distributing medicines;
it was teaching preventive methods so the villagers wouldn’t need
them. Some afternoons, she closed the clinic and drove her old
pick-up into town to counsel the laborers and subsistence farm workers,
and to distribute condoms to the nomadic women who worked
the roadhouse along the lorry route. The women turned their backs
when they saw her approaching, because they did not want to be
educated, or even noticed. They wanted something else, something
she couldn’t give them. Nearly 20 percent of the villagers were HIV positive,
Sandra Oku estimated, and many of them gathered at the
truck stop whenever the faith healers showed up to hawk their healing
potions. Over the past year, conditions had worsened in Kaarta.
Water was scarce, and some residents had taken to fetching it from
streams contaminated with untreated excrement. Since the revolution
last year—when the Sundiata military chief had taken over the
government of Maurice Kasuva—the central government’s health
ministry had made it more difficult for the rural pharmacies and
health clinics to get medicines.
Hers was a tiny clinic with just four beds. Twelve-volt automobile
batteries powered the electrical equipment; the lights were run by
kerosene. Scalpel blades, syringes and needles were more often sterilized
and reused than replaced. She had to make do with what she had
and send the serious cases on to Tihka.
Dr. Oku awoke just before sunrise each morning, walked out back,
kneeled in the dirt and prayed for the people of her village. Some of
them had come to depend on her, although they tried not to bother
her after the clinic closed at sundown, because the clinic building
was also where Sandra Oku lived. Some mornings, several of them
would be sitting in the grass out front, waiting for her to unlatch the
This day, though, had been different. Something strange had
arrived in Kaarta overnight. Something she had never seen before in
her thirty-seven years. It began, for her, before dawn, when she had
been awakened by an urgent knocking on the clinic’s back door.
“Please, please, will you come see?” A woman’s voice, speaking
breathlessly, in Swahili. “Dr. Sandra! Can you come help? Please. I
can’t wake him.”
Sandra Oku pulled on a sleeveless night dress and unlatched the
door, pointing her flashlight at the ground. The eyes of Mrs. Makere,
a farmer’s wife who lived across the dirt fields to the southeast, met
hers with pleading urgency. Dew still glistened on the ground and in
the baobab trees in the moonlight.
“What is it?”
“He won’t wake up. Nothing will wake him.”
“Okay. Let’s go see.”
Dr. Oku grabbed her bag and walked barefoot into the cool morning
to her pick-up truck. It turned over after a reluctant whir-whir-whir
sound. They rode together in silence, nearly a kilometer across the
open plain to a cluster of mud homes where the Makeres and other
farm workers lived—the route Nancy Makere must have just walked.
Like the others, theirs was a small, square-ish, mud-brick house,
reinforced with sticks and cardboard and plastic bags. A pink light
hung in the sky above the rusted tin roof as they arrived. The breeze
smelled of wood smoke.
Joseph Makere, a large, gray-bearded man known to work ten or
eleven hours a day harvesting soybeans this time of year, was asleep
on a mattress in a corner room, as his wife had said. An open window
faced the lorry route and the small produce stand Nancy Makere ran.
“There,” she said.
The two women watched him, inhaling and exhaling beneath a
white sheet, as if struggling for air, his eyes closed. It was an eerie
sound, one Sandra Oku had heard once years before—the sound of a
man about to drown in his own lung fluids.
Dr. Oku pulled a surgical mask over her face. She knelt and
touched his chest, and then felt his pulse, noticed a small, dried
trickle of blood extending from each nostril. Hearing a cough, she
turned; one of the Makeres’ four children was standing beside Nancy
now, her face glistening with a thin film of sweat.
“Where are the others?”
Nancy Makere’s eyes pointed. “In there,” she said.
Dr. Oku followed her into the other bedroom. She set down her
bag. The three boys were sleeping, unclothed, on a thin mattress, two
on their backs, the other on his right side, breathing with the same
deep raspy sound as their father.
She knelt beside them and gently shook the shoulders of one, and
another. She opened the lids of the oldest boy and saw that his eyes
were bright with fever.
“Have they been ill?” Dr. Oku asked, taking the boy’s pulse. “What
sort of symptoms have they had?”
“None. Last night, when they went to sleep, they were fine. We’ve
been trying to wake them for—” She looked at the battery clock on a
shelf by her bed. “More than fifty minutes.”
“Okay. Help me carry them to the truck. I’ll need to bring them
into the clinic. They’re contagious and are going to need to be
“Quarantined,” she repeated, a frightened look flickering in her
eyes. Nancy Makere stood still, watching Dr. Oku. “And then what?”
“Then we’ll see. I don’t know yet. We’ll give them oxygen and
antibiotics and see what we can do. Help me now, please.”
The two women bundled Joseph Makere in the sheet and dragged
him to the back of the truck. One at a time, then, they carried the
boys, laying them on the threadbare mattress that Dr. Oku kept in
the truck-bed for transporting patients. As they rode silently across
the field back to the clinic, the first crescent of sun appeared above
the familiar distant mountains, silhouetting random trees on the
At the clinic, Sandra Oku lay the four patients on cots and began
to administer oxygen to them one at a time, monitoring their vital
signs. It quickly became clear that there was nothing she could do to
wake them. At 7:22, Joseph Makere stopped breathing. The youngest
boy died twenty-three minutes later.
About an hour before the third boy stopped breathing, a station
wagon arrived from the south village fields with seven passengers,
four men and three women. Normally they would be in the maize
and cassava fields by now. But Sally Kantanga, who owned the farm,
could not wake them this morning.
“Not any of them. What’s the matter with them?” she asked. Dr.
Oku saw that she was sweating profusely, even though the morning
air was still cool.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m going to call Tihka Hospital on the
By ten o’clock, forty-three people had died at the clinic and in
the still-moist grasses outside. Many others were lined up or lying in
the dirt, waiting to see her. Sandra Oku had run out of blankets and
sheets to cover the victims, and eleven of the bodies lay uncovered.
Sixteen others, including Nancy Makere, her daughter, and Sally
Kantanga, were sleeping deeply in what she had called the Recovery
Room. No one was going to recover this morning.
Excerpted from Viral by James Lilliefors. Copyright © 2012 by James Lilliefors. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.