When the telephone rang, Mma Ramotswe was sitting on the veranda of her house in Zebra Drive, drinking the day's first cup of bush tea. It had been a busy week at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and she savoured her tea with the delicious knowledge that today she did not have to work. She would go shopping, as she always did on Saturdays, and perhaps stop at the President Hotel before returning home. After lunch, she would take a nap. Lying in the cool darkness of her quiet bedroom, while the rest of the world took care of its own business – oh, she was looking forward to that.
But the telephone was ringing, and she hoped very much it would not be something that would get in the way of her Saturday. With a sigh she put down her half-empty cup and rose to her feet. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was still sleeping – that was part of his joy in Saturday, being able to rise late, with no urgent business at the garage, no need to make sure the apprentices were doing their proper jobs – and the children were asleep as well.
Her irritation vanished when she picked up the phone and heard Mma Potokwane's voice. Her friends could always call her on a Saturday, even early in the morning while she was drinking tea. And Mma Potokwane was a good friend. Even if she did use large slices of fruitcake to bribe Mr J.L.B. Matekoni into fixing all the mechanical equipment on the orphan farm in his spare time.
"You will never believe what is being given to the orphan farm," began Mma Potokwane. She sounded nearly breathless with excitement. Mma Ramotswe thought, perhaps cynically, that she could easily believe that Mma Potokwane had talked someone out of just about anything – for of course, that must have been what had happened. The matron of the orphan farm was astonishing in her ability to press and prod and persuade people to give their time and money. But of course, that was an essential part of her job. "A brand-new Mercedes-Benz minibus!"
"That is…very good," said Mma Ramotswe. She had heard the pride in Mma Potokwane's voice. For herself, she didn't care much for fancy cars – her tiny white van was all she needed or wanted – but she knew that a Mercedes was a very fine automobile indeed. Perhaps it will not need as much repair as the old vans and machinery, she thought but did not say. She didn't want to sound as though she begrudged the time that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni spent at the orphan farm, because she did not. Mostly. "Who gave you a brand-new Mercedes-Benz?"
"Ah! It was Mr Gabolwelwe, who owns the big car dealership. So you see, he has all the Mercedes-Benzes he wants. Sedans, convertibles, minibuses. He can easily give them away."
"I see," said Mma Ramotswe doubtfully. The car dealership in Gaborone was not really all that big. People who wanted fancy cars usually went to Johannesburg to buy them. Mr Gabolwelwe mostly had used cars, smaller ones like her tiny white van. She did not remember ever seeing a Mercedes-Benz on his lot. Not a sedan, not a convertible, certainly not a minibus. "Are you sure it is new?"
"Of course it is new! Well," she amended, "it is almost new, he says. In very good condition. He says it is a tax write-off. And he would like to help the orphans. It will be helpful for taking them on outings. He is very kind."
"I am sure he is," said Mma Ramotswe.
There was a pause. "So," said Mma Potokwane briskly. "There is this noise that the washing machine is making. Of course we can do the wash by hand, but there is a great deal of it, you know, for all the children. And I was wondering if perhaps Mr J.L.B. Matekoni might have a little time today…?"
"I will ask him when he wakes."
"You can tell him that there will be cake and tea," said Mma Potokwane.
"Of course there will be. I shall tell him," said Mma Ramotswe, smiling to herself, and she rang off and went back outside to finish her tea.
"So how is Mma Potokwane?" she asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni when he returned from the orphan farm. She had woken refreshed from her nap, and they sat companionably together in the shade, watching the children play. A girlfriend from school had come to visit Motholeli, and they were looking at a magazine together and giggling in the corner. Puso was building a ramp for his toy truck out of the soil at the edge of the garden. He seemed to take delight in pushing it hard so that it rolled up the ramp and then fell over the edge, crashing into the ground. But he was a boy, and she supposed that was what boys did. Better they play at destroying things as children than do it in earnest as men.
"Oh, fine, she is fine. A bearing had gone bad, that was the problem."
For a moment she imagined that it was Mma Potokwane herself who had a bad bearing. It would make her list to the side, perhaps, and make a noise every time she stepped with her right foot. She smiled to herself. Of course it was the washing machine, but that was how her husband thought. He identified people by the problems of their cars: this one was the leaky gasket, that one was the squeaky brake. And Mma Potokwane was, today, the noisy washing machine.
"And the fruitcake?" she asked archly.
"That was fine, too."
"And the Mercedes-Benz minibus? Did you see it?"
He frowned. "She told me about the Mercedes, but it hasn't been delivered yet. I don't know. I am surprised that Mr. Gabolwelwe would give away such an expensive vehicle."
"She says he told her it was a tax write-off."
"Maybe," he said. "You know, the cars he sells…" He studied Puso for a moment, and she turned to look as well. The boy had excavated a hole in the dirt under the ramp and covered it with thin twigs and grass. When he pushed the over the edge it broke through the thin covering and fell into the hole. This seemed to be what he wanted, for he smiled as he plucked the toy out of the hole. Then he covered the hole again, and repeated the exercise.
"People bring cars to me sometimes when they are thinking about buying them," he finally said. "To check that there is nothing major wrong with them. And Mr Gabolwelwe…." He looked at her helplessly.
"His cars are not always in the best condition," she suggested.
"They are not," he agreed.
She thought for a moment. "Perhaps it is stolen."
"He would not deal in stolen cars." Mr J.L.B. Matekoni sounded confident on this point. For her own part, she was not so sure; she remembered the wife who had come to her with suspicions that her husband's car was a stolen one, and she wondered whether maybe Mr Gabolwelwe had accepted a car, then found it to be stolen, and wanted to hide the evidence. She was about to say something, when he shrugged. "And besides, who would steal a minibus? A Mercedes-Benz sedan, maybe, but a minibus?"
She had to agree with this. "Maybe when it is delivered you could look at it. To see if there is something terribly wrong with it that would explain why it is being given away."
He smiled at her. "I might. Are you going to offer me fruitcake?" They both laughed, and went on to other topics. But for the rest of the afternoon, she couldn't help thinking about it. It was not as though there weren't enough cases to keep the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency busy. There was plenty of work for herself and for Mma Makutsi, and an occasional task for Mr Polopetsi as well. But that was weekday work, work for clients. Clients who saw her advertisement or her sign above the side entrance of the garage, who walked nervously into the office, desperate to share their troubles with this stranger, this lady detective who would charge them a fee – never too much, she always made sure of that – and solve their problems.
Mma Potokwane was a friend, not a client. But even if this was not precisely a problem, it was a mystery, and Mma Ramotswe never could resist a mystery.
As it happened, she did not even have to suggest that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni inspect the minibus. On Tuesday, Mma Potokwane phoned. "It's here! Mr Gabolwelwe delivered it today! It is here!"
"How exciting! What colour is it?"
"White, it is white."
"A practical colour," said Mma Ramotswe approvingly. It was true that white vehicles quickly became streaked with dust in the dry season and mud in the rainy season. But this happened to all vehicles, of whatever colour. The important thing was that Botswana's hot summer sun would not turn the inside into an oven. Of course, one always tried to park in the shade of a large tree, but there were not nearly enough large trees to shade all the cars that needed to be parked. A white minibus would be cooler in the summer, whether it was parked under a tree or not.
"You should come and see it. And visit with me, of course," said Mma Potokwane. "It has been some time since we have really sat down to talk."
It was quickly arranged that Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni come to the orphan farm the next afternoon to see the minibus. They would both be busy until three o'clock, but that was all right; in fact it was even better, as they could bring the children, who were eager to visit with their friends they had left behind. They chattered with each other on the short drive, and as soon as Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had taken the wheelchair out of the back and swung Motholeli into it, Puso jumped out to push his sister across to where the other children were playing. Some of them had already looked up when they heard the truck drive up, wondering who was visiting, and when they spotted Motholeli's wheelchair they had run to meet her and Puso.
How much their lives had changed, thought Mma Ramotswe. Her life had changed because of the children, and the children's lives were now so much different than they had been when they lived here. Better, certainly, with a – yes, with a mother and a father. She had not given birth to these children, but she could not love them more if she had done so, if they were the blood sister and brother to that tiny baby who had lived for such a terribly short time. And Mr J.L.B. Matekoni loved them too, quietly but with his whole heart. They were all so very lucky to have each other.
Mma Potokwane rose from her seat under the large acacia tree in front of her office, and clapped her hands. "You are here! Come, look at our new Mercedes-Benz minibus. Or would you like some tea first?"
"Oh, no. We should see your new minibus first," Mma Ramotswe assured her. She could hardly avoid seeing the minibus. It was parked with pride of place in the very best spot under the tall, slanting roof of the vehicle shed. The old vans and cars that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni was constantly fixing had been moved to the back or behind the shed. But she knew that just looking across the yard at it was not what was expected of her. And certainly Mr J.L.B. Matekoni would need to make a closer inspection.
They walked over to the minibus. The silvery Mercedes ornament on the front glittered, while the white paint was brilliant and shiny, gleaming as if to say, "Look at me! I am the best of all of these cars!" So different than the finish on her old van, which had faded to a flat colour. Plain old white. It was a useful van, and Mma Ramotswe loved it dearly, but it was not even half as brilliant and shiny as the new minibus.
"Very beautiful," said Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Potokwane beamed with pleasure. "You see how the door works perfectly," she said, demonstrating how neatly and quietly it slid open, and then closing it with a soft click. "And the seats are very comfortable."
"It will be wonderful for driving the children places," said Mma Ramotswe.
"Yes," said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. He was appraising it with his professional's eye, scrutinizing the place where the glass of the windscreen fit into its frame, looking thoughtfully at the inflation of the tyres. Or something along those lines, Mma Ramotswe was certain.
"Well," said Mma Potokwane brightly. "Shall we have some tea? And cake, of course. I shall cut us all big pieces of cake."
Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni exchanged glances. He cleared his throat. "That sounds very good. But first, maybe you will let me look a little more closely?" He gestured toward the minibus. "You ladies start without me. As long as you will save me a little cake?"
Mma Potokwane smiled. "We will save you a very big piece."
The women walked back toward the acacia tree, and while Mma Potokwane went into her office to prepare the tea, Mma Ramotswe settled herself into a chair. She looked over toward Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who appeared to be inspecting the minibus's engine, and then toward the children. The boys were mostly running around the yard, playing some kind of game, but the girls – including Motholeli, whose wheelchair was near the centre of the knot of children – were gathered around one of the matrons, whose hands rested on the handle of a baby buggy. The children were all leaned over the buggy, making soft noises at the child who, Mma Ramotswe assumed, lay inside.
"You have a new baby here?" asked Mma Ramotswe when Mma Potokwane returned with the tea and cake. She indicated the children clustered around the matron with the baby buggy.
"Oh, yes. His name is Adam. He is only four months old." Mma Potokwane sighed as she poured the tea. "His auntie brought him here when he was not very much past newborn. His mother died giving him life."
"What a pity," said Mma Ramotswe. Her heart went out to the poor child who would never know his mother. "And his father?"
The only answer was an eloquent shrug. "Perhaps they were not married, or perhaps his people could not take care of the child. The auntie is the mother's sister." Mma Potokwane shook her head and clucked her tongue as she cut large slices of cake for both of them. "She is a young career lady, very busy, and could not care for the child herself. She works for a television station in Johannesburg."
"In Johannesburg! Then why did she bring the child here?" The answer came to her as she spoke. "Ah, of course. She must be from Gabarone."
"Yes," said Mma Potokwane. "I believe she still has people here, although I didn't recognize her name. Violet Molefe. She does the news broadcast in Johannesburg, she told me."
Mma Ramotswe didn't recognize the name either, although that meant nothing. Gabarone was a large city, after all, even if it was not nearly the size of Johannesburg. Where she came from, back in Mochudi, she would have recognized every name. Many of them would have been related to her in some way; in fact, she would not have been surprised to discover that everybody in Mochudi was related to each other by either blood, however dilute, or by marriage.
Sometimes she wondered if it would be better if there were no large cities, only small villages. Everybody would know everybody else. And they would know each other's business; there was no keeping secrets in a village. Of course, in that case there would be no work for a private detective.
"That is a very fine minibus," said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni as he joined them. "The engine is in good repair. Tip-top condition. It was not abused like some minibuses are. I added a little oil, but that is all."
"That is very good," said Mma Potokwane. "It is good that it is in tip-top condition. Let me pour you some tea."
Mma Ramotswe raised an eyebrow in his direction, and he looked down, flustered. "It is good, there is no problem," he muttered toward his feet.
Mma Potokwane, who was now cutting a large slice of fruitcake for him, looked up. "What is no problem?"
"It is nothing," Mma Ramotswe said quickly.
"The serial numbers match," Mr J.L.B. Matekoni told his feet.
"What serial numbers? What are you talking about?"
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni looked helplessly at Mma Ramotswe, who sighed. "If the minibus had been stolen, there are numbers on the frame and on the engine that would identify it. Often when a car is stolen the thieves file off or remove –"
"You cannot think it was stolen!" Mma Potokwane sounded more amused than angry as she shook her finger at Mma Ramotswe. "Why would it be stolen? It was a gift from Mr Gabolwelwe."
"I was only wondering why he would give you such a gift," Mma Ramotswe said. "I thought that maybe he had a – a reason."
"He has a reason," said Mma Potokwane. "It is love. What other reason does one need? Only love."
You think that love is the answer to everything, thought Mma Ramotswe. But she only said, "Love, yes. And also maybe a tax write-off," and they all laughed. Then she took a sip of tea, and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni took a bite of cake, and the conversation went on to other things.
The next morning was a busy one at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and Mma Ramotswe didn't have time to think about the orphan farm's new minibus until it was nearly ten o'clock. That was when Mma Makutsi pulled the letter she was typing out of her typewriter and announced that she was going to make tea. There was nothing unusual about this, of course; they usually stopped for tea at ten o'clock. But the sight of Mr Polopetsi and the apprentices, who had seen Mma Makutsi fill the kettle and had finished up their tasks so they, too, could stop for tea, reminded her of the slip of paper that was tucked under the corner of her much-read copy of The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Anderson.
"Ah, Mr Polopetsi. Are you busy today?"
He gave a small wave of his hand. "Not very busy, no. I did a routine service on a Nissan and then I was going to continue organizing the spare-parts cabinet."
"An organized office is an efficient office," said Mma Makutsi. She looked up from the tea she was pouring. "We learned that at the Botswana Secretarial College."
"This isn't an office! It is a garage!" said Charlie, the older apprentice.
"The same principles apply," Mma Makutsi informed him.
"That is what you think, you and your eighty-seven –"
"Ninety-seven percent! And it is –"
"Mr Polopetsi," said Mma Ramotswe loudly, and fortunately the other two subsided. She pulled the slip of paper from under the corner of the book and held it out to him. "This is the serial number of a Mercedes-Benz minibus. I would like you to check with the police on whether it might be stolen."
The two apprentices whistled. "A stolen minibus! You have found one?" asked the younger apprentice.
"Who would steal a minibus?" said Charlie scornfully. "They cannot go very fast."
"I do not know whether it is stolen," said Mma Ramotswe. "I do not think it is. But I want to be certain, and that is why I am asking Mr Polopetsi to check with the police."
"So. Somebody has bought a minibus, and they worry that it is stolen." Mma Makutsi's voice was sharp, and she was looking at her, frowning. It occurred to Mma Ramotswe that maybe Mma Makutsi might be thinking that this was a new case that she, Mma Ramotswe, hadn't bothered to tell her about. She might think that she was being excluded, that things were being kept from her even though she was an Assistant Detective. Mma Makutsi was sensitive about this sort of thing.
Mma Ramotswe hastened to let her know that it was not really a case. "No, nothing like that. You see, Mr Gabolwelwe has given a minibus to the orphan farm –"
"Ha!" said Charlie. "Mr Gabolwelwe, giving something for nothing? Ha!"
"So you know him?"
"Of course I know him! He sells cars, and I work in a garage. Of course I know him. And I know his daughter." Charlie smiled broadly, and his voice took on the somewhat leering tone that it always did when he talked about girls. Which was, thought Mma Ramotswe ruefully, most of the time. "Very pretty girl, very pretty. And what a bottom! Like this!" He described an improbable figure in the air with his hands and whistled, and the other apprentice laughed.
"You should not talk about ladies in that way," snapped Mma Makutsi.
"You are just sad because you are so ugly! With those big glasses and no bottom at all!"
"There is nothing wrong with having to wear glasses!"
"Of course there isn't," said Mma Ramotswe soothingly. She sent a warning glance in Charlie's direction.
"Anyway, I don't care if you think I'm ugly," Mma Makutsi continued, ostentatiously turning away from Charlie. "My fiancé Phuti Rhadiphuti doesn't think I'm ugly. And I am an Assistant Detective, which is much better than only being a dirty apprentice in a garage!"
"Ha!" crowed Charlie. "But she is a television star! She went to Johannesburg and now she does the news on television! What do you think of that? That is much better than being an Assistant Detective!"
"Oh!" gasped Mma Makutsi. Behind her large, round glasses her eyes were wide, and her hands shook, causing a little of her tea to spill onto the desk. She looked down at the spilled tea in horror and quickly set down her teacup – using more force than was strictly necessary, which caused yet more tea to splash over the rim of the cup – and looked around for something to clean up the spill.
Mr Polopetsi dug into his pocket and came up with a piece of the lint they used in the garage to clean their hands. "Here," he said, and Mma Makutsi took it gratefully and mopped up the tea, not looking at Charlie.
"I like being an Assistant Detective," she said, in the direction of her teacup. Her lips were tight, and Mma Ramotswe knew she was thinking about all the glamorous girls she had known in school, all the girls who had laughed and flirted their way through the Botswana Secretarial College and who had found good jobs right away despite scoring much less than ninety-seven percent on the final exam.
"Being a private detective is a very good job," Mma Ramotswe agreed. "I like it very much, too. But tell me about this television star, Charlie. I do not remember hearing of anybody named Gabolwelwe on television."
"But she is," he insisted. "She is on television in Johannesburg. Maybe she changed her name. Yes, that is it. I think she changed her name."
That would be possible, yes. She had read stories in magazines about famous people who had changed their names. Mostly they were actors and actresses, but there were novelists and musicians as well. She supposed some of them thought their old names were not glamorous enough, or were too difficult to pronounce. But it seemed rather strange to her. She couldn't imagine being called anything other than Precious Ramotswe. That was the name she had been given by her daddy, and that was who she was. If she changed her name, it would be like changing into another person. And she was perfectly happy being who she was: a traditionally-built Batswana lady, daughter of Obed Ramotswe, wife of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. That was who she was, and she did not wish to be anything different.
But modern girls had different ideas, she knew. So she asked Charlie: "Do you know what she changed her name to?"
"I don't know. But her first name is Violet. She used to be Violet Gabolwelwe."
"Violet! What a stupid name," muttered Mma Makutsi. She was thinking, Mma Ramotswe, knew, of Violet Sepotho, with whom she had a long history of conflict. She was one of those glamorous girls at the secretarial college who had made fun of Mma Makutsi's unfortunate complexion and large glasses. Violet was not a common name, but neither was it very unusual. Perhaps there were many ladies named Violet from Gabarone.
But she did not think it was a coincidence, so she asked Charlie, "I see you remember her well. Do you happen to remember whether she has a sister?"
"No sister," said Charlie. Then he smiled again. "It is too bad. I would like to like to go out with her sister, if she had one. I would like to go out with both of them together!"
He laughed, and so did the younger apprentice. Mr Polopetsi, though, frowned. "I don't understand. Why do you care if this lady has a sister?"
"It's nothing important," said Mma Ramotswe. "But you can give me back that paper and go back to organizing the spare-parts cabinet after tea. You do not need to go to the police. I do not think that the minibus was stolen after all."
When Mma Ramotswe drove up to the orphan farm, there was already a car parked in the shade of the tree where she had hoped to leave her tiny white van. It was not a large car, but it was a shiny one, and she could see by the symbol on it that it was a Mercedes-Benz. Instead she parked over by the shed, where the new minibus sat gleaming in its place of honour.
Mma Potokwane was walking out of her office with another woman, and Mma Ramotswe stood quietly near the shed and watched them. She hadn't called ahead, and if Mma Potokwane was busy, she could certainly wait. Instead she examined the other woman, who was young and pretty and dressed very smartly. Mma Makutsi would like those shoes, she thought to herself. They were blue, with pointed toes and very high heels. Not for a lady like herself, with traditionally-built feet, but the woman with Mma Potokwane clearly was accustomed to shoes like those.
Mma Potokwane knocked on the door of one of the children's houses, and a matron came out pushing a baby buggy. The woman in the blue shoes exclaimed something and bent to lift the child in her arms. She held it up and cooed at it, then cradled it close to her chest. That was a risky thing for a lady dressed in such fine clothing to do, Mma Ramotswe thought. Babies made all sorts of messes, and they didn't care if you were wearing your finest clothing. But if you loved a baby, you wouldn't care what sort of mess it made. Children were more important than dresses.
Mma Potokwane touched the woman gently on the shoulder, then turned to walk back to her office, leaving the woman in the blue shoes with the matron and the child. Mma Ramotswe walked forward to meet her. "Perhaps I should have called," she said apologetically.
"My old friends do not need to call before they visit me," said Mma Potokwane. "Come in, and we shall have some tea together."
Mma Ramotswe followed her in. "That woman is the baby's auntie, yes? The lady who is on television in Johannesburg?"
"You are a very good detective," said Mma Potokwane, laughing. She filled the kettle and set it to boil. "She is so happy to see that little boy. I am glad she can come to visit him. It is good for both of them."
"Yes," agreed Mma Ramotswe.
"So, what brings you here? Do you need my help on a case? Or perhaps," Mma Potokwane said, tilting her head toward the kettle with a smile, "you just want some tea and fruitcake?"
"Actually," began Mma Ramotswe, "I came to tell you…." And then she hesitated. What, really, had she come to tell Mma Potokwane? That the minibus was not stolen? But she hadn't thought it was stolen in the first place. That the young lady outside, crooning to the small baby in her arms was not his auntie but his mother? A mother who had given up her child for the sake of her career, but who could not leave him behind. She thought that maybe Mma Potokwane already knew that, too.
She smiled. "I came to tell you that you were right. As usual."
"Very good. What am I right about? That you want tea and cake?" The kettle began to steam, and Mma Potokwane poured the boiling water into the teapot.
"Your cake is delicious," agreed Mma Ramotswe, "and I always like drinking tea. But I am here for the same reason that that lady outside is here to see the baby. The same reason that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni fixes your trucks and your pumps and your machinery. The same reason that Mr Gabolwelwe has given you such a fine Mercedes-Benz minibus." She smiled warmly at her friend. Yes, Mma Potokwane had been right all along. "It is love. What other reason does one need?"