Set against the richly textured backdrop of a livewire African city, this fast-paced thriller offers a disturbing contemporary take on justice and morality. To be read with the lights on.
‘A cracking novel. Brilliant original writing, free of clichés. The pace is insane – in a good way.’ – Sarah Lotz, author of The White Road, Day Four and The Three .
NR BRODIE is a veteran journalist and best-selling author of five books.
Ian Jack fiddled with the chinstrap on his helmet and tried not to think about how much of an idiot he looked. The bowl-shaped cap fit badly, and the padding smelled of someone else’s sweat. The bulletproof vest was the same, sitting too high on his shoulders and cutting into his arms whenever he reached forward. He had a cheap Chinese gun strapped to his right hip: a 9mm knockoff with rough workings and a safety that wouldn’t stay put.
‘Piece of shit,’ he thought.
But Myburgh had been firm: no gear, no going on patrol.
It was a warm evening, and Ian could feel damp patches growing under his arms. The inside of the car smelled of something artificially sweet and tropical. He looked at the dashboard and saw a stick-on air freshener in the shape of a pineapple. The fruit smiled at him.
The car was an underpowered Korean compact, branded with the name of the security company. It was parked near a copse of trees on the edge of an undeveloped patch of land between two houses.
‘You spend a lot of time here?’ Ian asked the man next to him.
There was silence.
‘What’s your name – Duma? Dumisane?’ Ian tried again.
‘Thomas,’ the guard said.
‘Thomas,’ Ian repeated with a sigh. ‘Sorry. I’m … I’m Ian.’ He’d been about to say Detective Jack and caught himself just in time.
Thomas gave him a funny look anyway. ‘Mister Myburgh called you ‘cousin’. You family?’
Ian shook his head. ‘It’s like a nickname. I used to be a cop. My dad was a cop. Myburgh knew him. Knew both of us. You know he used to be a cop, right?’
‘Anyway, I got out a couple of years ago,’ Ian said. ‘Now I’m at university. This is for research.’
Thomas kept staring. ‘Which university?’ he asked, the words rolling into each other.
‘Which university?’ Thomas repeated, slower this time, like he was speaking to a child.
‘Uh, Wits,’ Ian stuttered.
‘Honours?’ Thomas asked. ‘Masters,’ Ian said. ‘Political studies,’ he added, aware how full of himself he sounded.
Thomas paused. ‘You look old for a student,’ he said. ‘My sister, she’s at Wits. She’s studying social work. But she doesn’t carry a gun.’
Ian looked down at Thomas’s waist, and saw the same gun strapped to his side.
‘What’s your story?’ he asked, hoping to change the subject.
Thomas gave a snort. ‘I was in MK. Nearly. I stopped school in the eighties. Wanted to be a revolutionary,’ he said. The last word seemed to linger in his mouth. ‘After 1994, I went back and got my matric. But this was the only job I could get,’ he said. ‘I’m helping to pay for my sister to study. So she can get a job without guns.’
Ian flicked his thumb over the butt of the 9mm again.
‘You want to be careful,’ Thomas said, looking down at the pistol. ‘They’re not like the Z88s you’re used to. Sometimes the safety clicks off. And they jam.’
‘Ja, I know,’ Ian said. ‘I saw a few of these … before.’
‘Piece of shit,’ Thomas said, and he chuckled.
Ian laughed too.
Just then the radio crackled into life. Ian jumped. A woman’s voice came through, unintelligible behind the static. The radio buzzed, then went silent again.
Ten seconds later a ringing noise came from the cubbyhole. Thomas leaned over, flicked open the latch, and pulled out a dull silver phone with the face lit up.
‘Car Two,’ he answered. His smile had disappeared.
Ian could hear a voice squawking from the phone.
‘Yes. Yes …’ Thomas nodded as he spoke, switching the phone from his right hand to his left, keeping the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he put the car into gear and turned on the ignition. ‘88 Forest. Corner what?’
‘Protea. Okay.’ Thomas ended the call, dropped the phone onto his lap, and pulled off with a slight jerk.
‘Panic activation,’ he said to Ian as he accelerated, leaning forward and fumbling under the dashboard. A second later, the street around them lit up with flickering shadows from the orange and white lights on top of the car.
‘Don’t worry,’ Thomas said, keeping his eyes on the road, not looking at Ian. ‘It’s mostly false alarms. Dogs. Trees. Someone sits on the panic button.’ He sighed like it was an old routine.
The radio started issuing orders again – the line still crackled with static, but now Ian could make out what the dispatcher was saying.
‘Calling Two. They say someone jumped into the garden. Over.’
‘Calling Two. Over. Eight is on its way. Over.’
‘Calling Two. Over. Calling Eight. Over. Police have been called. Over.’
‘Calling Two. Over. Calling Eight. Over. House has an easy lock. Over.’
‘Calling Two. Over. Acknowledge. Over.’
Thomas lifted up the handset and clicked. ‘This is Two. Over. Roger. Over,’ he said.
‘What’s an easy lock?’ Ian asked as Thomas felt under the dashboard again, bringing the sirens to life. The sound was surprisingly loud and tinny inside the car.
‘It’s a lock with a special key,’ Thomas shouted over the noise. ‘All these houses with big walls and spikes, electric fences – we can’t get inside when the alarm goes off. So we give them a special lock, and then we have the key. It’s all the same key. For emergencies.’
Trees flashed past. Ian could feel his heart beating faster, adrenaline starting to kick in. He forced himself to slow his breathing.
He opened his eyes as the car slowed in front of a face-brick h Two large orange ceramic eights were screwed onto the wall. One of them was hanging skew. An outside motion sensor light came on as the car pulled to a stop.
Thomas switched off the siren, but left the lights flickering. ‘Don’t get in my way, okay?’ he said as he climbed out. ‘Maybe you’re a cop, but there are different rules for us. Just follow me.’
Ian nodded. He closed his door and hurried behind Thomas to a small pedestrian gate to the side of a double garage door.
Thomas pulled a bunch of keys from his jacket pocket. He worked one of them into the lock and turned it slowly before easing the gate open. He stood at the entrance, eyes alert. ‘Dogs,’ he whispered to Ian, looking around. ‘They can’t tell the difference between a good black man and a bad one,’ he said, giving a small grin.
There were no barks, nor any other noises. A few seconds later, Thomas stepped through, leaving the gate open behind him.
The house was close to the street front. Ian saw the curtains twitch. A face appeared behind the windowpane.
‘Top Force Security,’ Thomas called, loud so the person behind the glass could hear him. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
The face nodded. Then a hand was raised, pointing to the right of the house, jabbing with urgency.
Thomas took his gun out of its holster, keeping his arm low. Ian wondered if he was supposed to do the same. He decided he would wait for Thomas’s say-so.
They were about to start walking down the side of the house when Ian heard the sound of another vehicle pulling up. Car doors slammed, followed by the sound of boots on bricks.
Two more guards – wearing identical outfits to Thomas and Ian – stepped in through the gate, their hands already on the guns at their sides. They nodded at Thomas and looked at Ian with blank expressions. To Ian’s surprise, behind them came three police officers, two men in uniform and one woman in plainclothes. The first cop held a semiautomatic rifle ready, up against his chest; Ian knew the others would have their pistols out. He thumbed his own gun again, checked the safety.
Thomas pointed towards the narrow alley that ran along the side of the house.
The cops moved fast, going past the guards. Thomas and the others followed, Ian staying close behind them.
The alley opened up into a large back garden with a massive willow tree just off centre. A floodlight at the base of the tree cast shadows through the branches, spidering out over the grass. Near the rear boundary wall, Ian could make out a garden shed.
Something moved there.
Ian tapped Thomas lightly on the arm. The guard looked at the shed and nodded. He caught the attention of the largest cop, the one with the rifle. Thomas pointed towards the shed with his left hand, his right still holding firmly onto his gun.
The officer signalled the others and started moving towards the far side of the garden. He stepped softly despite his bulk. A few steps behind him, the plainclothes officer followed, her gun out, providing cover. The other uniformed cop began to circle from the near side, eyes trained on the shed.
Ian still didn’t have his weapon out. Even if he was allowed to fire it – and Myburgh hadn’t exactly been clear on that – he wasn’t sure what the deal was with cops on the scene. He didn’t trust the gun to do the job anyway, not if he needed to shoot from any sort of distance.
From the side of the shed, a shape detached itself from the shadows and darted towards the thin pool of light cast by the flood lamp.
Ian could see it was a slight man – young, maybe even a teenager. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt. There was a dark smear near the shoulder, and Ian wondered if it was blood. He couldn’t see the kid’s hands, or make out if he was holding a weapon.
‘Phakamis’ izandla!’ the big cop called. Hands up. The kid didn’t respond, or didn’t hear. He didn’t even turn his head towards the sound. He just stayed still for a second, hovering between the light and the dark.
‘He’s going to run for it,’ the woman shouted, as the youngster dropped into a half-crouch – then headed straight into the gap where Ian was standing.
Ian acted without thinking. He launched himself forward, praying his safety stayed on, and intercepted the kid with a thump, landing on top of him in the middle of a perfectly manicured piece of lawn.
‘Down,’ Ian yelled as he pinned the kid on the grass, holding the boy’s arms behind him as he knelt on his back. ‘He’s down,’ he yelled again. He could hear running feet, the kid on the grass panting, the cops calling out to each other.
Then there was another set of hands reaching for the suspect, someone else grabbing the kid’s wrists and securing them quickly with cable ties.
Ian felt a tap on his shoulder as he stood up. He paused to brush a patch of mud off his knee before he turned.
‘Hello Reshma,’ he said, trying to breathe normally. ‘Or is it Lieutenant Patel now?’ he asked.
The cop squinted for a second, then her eyes widened. ‘Jesus! Ian,’ she laughed, punching him hard on the arm.
Reshma barely came up to Ian’s chin. She had a short, neat bob and a square fringe that framed a slightly round face. She was wearing dark pants and a pale cream pullover, over which she’d strapped her vest. ‘Actually, it’s Captain Patel now,’ she said. ‘I didn’t recognise you when we came in. It must be the helmet.’
Ian was immediately aware, again, of how ridiculous he looked – dressed head to toe in shades of beige and brown. Even in a bulletproof vest and fleecy top, Reshma managed to look neat, professional, serious. Like a cop.
‘I thought you were supposed to be at university,’ she said, eyes narrowing.
‘I am. I’m doing research,’ Ian started. ‘On private security,’ he added, wishing he could say something that sounded a little more clever, or important. He could feel his arms and legs tingle as the adrenaline started to fade.
‘Look, that kid might be injured,’ he said, changing the topic. ‘I saw blood or something on his shirt. Maybe you should check it out?’ he suggested.
Reshma shrugged, as if to say she’d think about it.
One of the security guards was already up at the house, talking to the homeowners – a middle-aged couple, both in dressing gowns, both wideeyed. The wife stood with her arms tightly folded, hugging herself. Her husband nodded as he spoke. Something he said made the guard stop and turn away, leaving the dressing-gown man with his mouth hanging open. The guard – Ian could now see it was Thomas – made his way to where Reshma and Ian were standing.
‘Officer,’ Thomas started. ‘The client, he says he saw the kid jump over the fence from the neighbour’s house.’
They turned to look at the prefabricated concrete wall that ran between the house and the neighbouring property, a two-metre high wall that had been painted what looked like dark green.
‘The neighbour’s not our client,’ Thomas said, turning back to Reshma. ‘We can’t get in there without the owner’s permission.’
Reshma nodded. ‘No problem,’ she said. ‘We’ll go over and ring their bell, check it out. Thanks for letting me know. Jimmy, Gift,’ she called out, ‘we need to go to the house next door and …’
Before she could finish, two shots exploded from the neighbouring house, cutting through the night like firecrackers.
Ian saw Reshma flinch. The next second, she was in full control again. ‘Go, go, go,’ she screamed, as the policemen left the cuffed kid lying on the ground and raced in the direction of the noise.
Reshma was the first to reach the wall, hauling herself up and dropping down the other side, nimble as a rat. The others didn’t make the jump quite as easily. The big cop was still trying to pull himself up and over when Ian started running. He could hear shouting behind him and hoped Thomas was smart enough not to follow. He caught the top of the fence and flipped over, landing heavily on hard-packed soil on the other side.
The neighbour’s garden was almost completely bare, except for one patch of bushes and a few outcrops of lawn. Ian could see Reshma running towards the back of the house where an outside light revealed a wide-open sliding door. The inside of the house was in darkness.
Ian didn’t wait to see if the other two cops had made their way over the wall yet. He followed Reshma, snaking his way across the yard. As he passed the bushes, a small white shape burst out under his feet. Ian swore as he jumped mid-stride, trying not to trip over whatever it was. The shape let out a terrified squawk. A chicken.
He kept moving, hoping there were no more surprise animals on the way, thinking about Thomas’s warning about dogs.
As Ian got closer to the house, he could hear Reshma shouting. He slowed down to unclip his gun, keeping it pointed towards the ground. His own breath was coming hard and fast now. He honed in on the sound of Reshma’s voice, talking now, no longer shouting.
‘Step away from him. Step away,’ she was saying as Ian reached the open doorway.
Ian could smell the sour tang of burnt gunpowder, and something else. Blood. He looked inside and saw a woman – heavyset, with long dark hair and pale skin – crouching over a small body on the floor. The woman was wearing a sleeveless top, her exposed arms thick with flesh. In her left hand, she held a small snub-nosed pistol. It reminded Ian of the old Makarovs.
The two cops – Gift and Jimmy, Ian remembered – eventually caught up. Ian stepped aside to let them pass, ignoring their glares.
Reshma carried on talking to the woman, her weapon still held at the ready.
‘Ma’am. You need to move away from him, now.’
The woman stood up slowly, looking dazed. She was in her late forties, Ian thought. Her face was square, a hint of jowl peeking out beneath the chin.
The room was small, sparsely decorated. Blank walls, a tiled floor. An almost empty bookshelf and a vertical wine rack half-filled with bottles.
The body sprawled on the tiles was a carbon copy of the kid they’d caught next door: dressed in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, his skinny limbs lay in a pile of unnatural angles that said it all.
‘Is there anyone else?’ Reshma asked.
The pale woman shook her head.
‘Gift, check his signs,’ Reshma called. ‘Jimmy, check out the house.’
The woman jerked her head up as the shorter cop, Jimmy, moved around the body and disappeared through another door.
Gift, the larger officer, knelt down next to the teenager and put his fingers on the skin between the kid’s jaw and throat. ‘Nothing,’ he said after a few seconds. He rose, shaking his head.
Reshma kept her gun trained on the floor, and her eyes on the pale woman. If she was aware of Ian, she gave no sign of it. With her right hand she pulled a radio from the utility belt around her hips and called for an ambulance. Ian always forgot Reshma was left-handed, until she wrote something down, or it was time for target practice.
‘It’s a P4,’ Reshma told the dispatcher. Priority 1 was urgent, lifethreatening, requiring immediate medical attention. Priority 4 meant the person was beyond assistance, or already dead. There would be no sirens for that journey, Ian thought.
‘Are you okay?’ Reshma asked the other woman.
The woman nodded, staring at the body on the floor, her arms dangling. Ian noticed she was still holding her pistol. He bit back the urge to tell Reshma.
Whatever the woman was feeling about having just shot and killed somebody, she hid it well. Her face was blank, almost featureless except for a dusting of freckles across her nose. In the bleak half-light, her skin appeared almost grey, and Ian noted that she did not appear to have any eyebrows. She looked somewhere between a clown and a ghost.
He looked back at the body and saw the faintest spatter of blood on the floor, tiny black dots radiating outward on the white squares of the tiles.
‘I killed him?’ the woman asked, an accent audible in the corners of her words.
‘He was going to rape me,’ the woman said. This time the accent was more noticeable. Something European, maybe Eastern Europe, Ian thought, which might explain the Makarov.
From somewhere in the house, Jimmy shouted the rooms were all clear.
‘What happened?’ Reshma asked, her voice sharp and alert. She was working the crime, Ian knew.
The other woman paused and looked around her as if she didn’t recognise the space she was in.
‘I … I left the sliding door open. Is for the cats. Then I heard noise,’ she said. Her voice had begun to tremble. She shuffled from side to side and a foot poked out underneath the long, shapeless skirt she was wearing. Ian could make out her exposed toes.
It was one of the things he had hated about being a cop; the nakedness that came with crime. Seeing people at their most unguarded and unprepared.
The woman started rambling. ‘I heard noise. I went to get my gun,’ she said. ‘The one man, he ran away. The other, he stayed. He said he had a gun in his pocket. He was telling me I had to do what he said. He was talking to me. I don’t know what he said,’ she whispered, the trembling getting worse. ‘Does he have a gun?’ she asked, her large eyes contracting.
Ian looked. The young boy’s hands were splayed, as if he had been trying to stop himself from falling. They were empty.
‘Is he really dead?’ the woman asked again. Then: ‘I shot him,’ she said, without waiting for an answer. She stared at her own hands and saw the gun in them, as if she had almost forgotten it was there.
Reshma stepped forward, her own gun pointing away, wanting to retrieve the woman’s weapon. The pale woman started at the movement and looked up, past Reshma.
‘Who is he?’ she asked, pointing at Ian.
‘Security guard,’ Reshma answered without turning back. ‘Your neighbour pressed a panic button.’
‘My neighbours, they are afraid of so many things,’ the pale woman said, almost mockingly. She reached up to scratch her face. The movement left a dirty trail across her nose, smudging the freckles. With a chill, Ian realised they were blood spatters.
‘You should get that checked,’ Ian said. ‘You’ll need to go on ARVs.’
The woman gazed at him, her eyes almost glittering, even in the darkness.
Reshma turned to face Ian. ‘You should get back,’ she said, pointedly. ‘There’s no reason for you to be here.’ She waited for him to leave. Ian put the safety back on his gun and holstered it before turning and walking away from the dead room.