When the body of a Bushman is discovered near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the death is written off as an accident.
But all is not as it seems. An autopsy reveals that, although he’s clearly very old, his internal organs are puzzlingly young. What’s more, an old bullet is lodged in one of his muscles … but where is the entry wound?
When the body is stolen from the morgue and a local witch doctor is reported missing, Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu gets involved. But did the witch doctor take the body to use as part of a ritual? Or was it the American anthropologist who’d befriended the old Bushman?
As Kubu and his brilliant young colleague, Detective Samantha Khama, follow the twisting trail through a confusion of rhino-horn smugglers, foreign gangsters and drugs manufacturers, the wider and more dangerous the case seems to grow.
Kubu found Ian in his tiny office off the mortuary, sucking on his usual pipe full of unlit tobacco and contemplating a desert scene he’d painted himself. He’d pulled down his surgical mask and left it hanging around his neck.
After a perfunctory greeting, Kubu asked him what was so puzzling.
‘I’ll show you,’ Ian replied. ‘Get togged up.’ He pointed to a lab coat that had some hope of getting around Kubu’s bulk, handed him a mask, and passed him a box of latex gloves. He pulled on a pair himself, adjusted his mask, and led the way to the room where the autopsy had taken place. Kubu was glad that lunch was still a way off; he was not fond of dead bodies under the best of circumstances, and cut-up ones that had been lying in the desert for a few days certainly weren’t the best of circumstances.
They walked over to a corpse lying on a slab.
‘Cause of death is a broken neck, snapped between C2 and C3 – the second and third cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord is damaged there, so he would’ve stopped breathing and died within a couple of minutes. Now, take a look at this.’ He indicated the left side of the head. ‘It looks as though he was hit on the side of the face. There’s bruising, and there are abrasions as a result of the blow. It seems the blow was hard enough to break the neck. But that’s very unusual. There’s not that much damage to the face – no cracked cheekbones, for example – so I don’t think the blow was very severe. You’d expect the head to whip sideways, but not the neck to break.’
‘What if someone broke his neck deliberately? Held him and then sharply twisted his head? If the bones are as brittle as you say, that would’ve been easy.’
‘Well, there’s only bruising on one side of the face, and there’s no evidence of a struggle. He would’ve fought back, and there would’ve been evidence. Skin under the fingernails or the like. There’s nothing.’
‘Could it have been an accident? He was hit on the face and broke his neck in the fall?’
Ian shook his head. ‘I can’t see how he’d fall on his head. And look at this.’ He lifted the right arm and showed Kubu the wrist, which was badly bruised.
Kubu looked carefully at the damage and nodded.
‘He also has a distal radial fracture,’ Ian added. ‘That’s a broken wrist.’
‘What could’ve caused that?’
Ian shrugged. ‘Given how weak his bones are, a rough grip from a strong man might’ve done it. If you fall, that bone’s the one that breaks when you try to save yourself, but given the damage to his spinal cord, that’s very unlikely.’
‘When did he die?’
‘Judging by what Detective Sergeant Segodi said about the state of rigor mortis, probably the day before the tourists found the body. I can’t do much better than that at this point.’ He paused.
Kubu waited. So far nothing particularly strange had been revealed, but he was sure there was more to come.
‘He’s old, all right,’ Ian continued. ‘Bushmen always have faces like walnuts from all that sun, even the young ones. But look at the hair. Pure white. And his bones are showing signs of severe osteoporosis. That’s leaching of the calcium. It happens in old people and makes the bones brittle. That may be why that blow snapped his neck, and the radius cracked under a rough grip.’
Kubu nodded. So, the man was old. That was no surprise either.
Now doubt entered Ian’s voice. ‘And yet, look at this.’ He offered Kubu an unidentified organ in a glass jar filled with clear liquid. ‘Go on, take it. Look closely.’ Kubu did, then handed it back none the wiser.
‘That’s the liver of a young man, Kubu. Maybe a forty-year-old who didn’t drink. And then there’s this.’ He handed Kubu a container with what was clearly a heart. ‘That ticker would’ve gone on pumping for years. All of the internal organs are like that. It’s only the skin, the bones, and the hair that belong to a seventy- or eighty-year-old.’
Kubu frowned. ‘How can he be forty inside and seventy outside? Could it be just genetics? He chose his parents well?’
‘I’ve never read of anything like this,’ Ian replied. ‘And here’s something else.’
He passed Kubu a Petri dish containing a blackened lump of what Kubu took for metal.
‘That’s a bullet, no doubt about it. I found it by chance when I got intrigued by the young organs.’ Ian paused and corrected himself. ‘The young-looking organs, I should say. It was lodged in one of the rectus abdominis muscles, a couple of centimetres below the skin. Probably pretty spent when it hit him, or it would’ve killed him. I was surprised.’
‘Surprised? Was it recent?’
‘Not recent at all. I was surprised because there was no scar. Nothing. I take photos as well as examining the body before I start the autopsy. I went back to the photos to check. No scarring at all.’
‘If he was a nomadic Bushman and someone shot him long ago, he wouldn’t see a doctor in the desert. If he didn’t die, he’d recover. How long would the scar take to disappear?’
Ian shook his head. ‘Never. The scar would never disappear. Certainly not without an expert plastic surgeon and proper medication at the time of the injury.’
Kubu was starting to understand why Ian was so puzzled. ‘Could he have swallowed the bullet or something?’
Again, Ian shook his head. ‘It would be impossible for it to get there from inside the body. And it’s badly corroded. It’s been there for a very long time. I’m surprised the lead didn’t cause him more problems.’
It was Kubu’s turn to shake his head. The Bushmen were strange people, and strange things happened with them, but a young man in an old frame, who seemed immune to bullets was another thing altogether. It didn’t make any sense.
Ian glanced at his friend and realised that Kubu had followed the same path he’d walked earlier that morning. He nodded slowly.
Kubu had had enough. ‘Well, let’s get out of here and go back to your office.’
‘So,’ Kubu summarised, after they’d washed their hands and disposed of the masks and gloves, ‘what we have is a very old man, apparently in good health except for his skin and his bones. He was killed by a blow to the head. And he was shot long ago, but that, presumably, has nothing to do with his death. Correct?’
Ian nodded, but said nothing.
Kubu brooded about it. ‘Is it possible we have the wrong end of the stick? Maybe he’s a middle-aged man, and had some illness that affected the bones. Maybe a nutrition problem? You said that Bushmen all have wrinkled skin.’
‘What about the white hair?’
Kubu shrugged. ‘Can’t that happen after an extreme shock of some kind, like being bitten by a scorpion or poisonous snake?’
Ian frowned. ‘I suppose it’s possible. But that doesn’t explain the bullet.’
Kubu was sure Ian had more to say. He leant back in his chair and waited.
Ian fiddled with his pipe and took a long draw. ‘You know I’m interested in the Bushmen, Kubu. Always have been. One of my colleagues at the University of Botswana told me about a visiting anthropologist from the US giving a seminar on what he called the ‘oral memory’ of the Bushman peoples. I wasn’t all that taken with the topic, but went along to see what he was talking about.
‘What made me think of it now was his story about a certain Bushman he’d met. He said the Bushman was a great raconteur of stories about historical events that had happened to his people. He’d tell them in the first person – as though he’d been there himself. The stories changed a little with each retelling, but all the main points stayed consistent. The anthropologist was fascinated by this. He postulated that it was a way history could be retained by a people without a written record – that they learnt the events as though they had actually been present. He thought perhaps that the storyteller visualised himself experiencing events that had actually been seen by his father or grandfather – maybe with the help of a trance or drugs.’
‘It sounds as though that would lead to exaggeration rather than accuracy. I don’t remember any Bushman doing that.’
‘His suggestion was that only special men were selected for this oral memory task.’ Ian shrugged. ‘I said I wasn’t convinced. And he got a lot of questions after the talk, some pretty pointed.’
Kubu caught on. ‘You think our corpse in there could be one of the Bushmen he was talking about?’
‘I don’t know, but I got to thinking. If he was some sort of genetic freak – and you’ve seen the evidence yourself – then perhaps he’s a lot older than he looks. Maybe he’s around ninety or even older. Perhaps that man was telling those stories in the first person because he actually was present at the events.’ Ian looked uncomfortable. ‘I know it’s farfetched, but just look at the internal condition this man was in.’ He hesitated. ‘One of the stories he told the anthropologist was of a hunting party from what is now Namibia that attacked his group and shot many of them. Men, women and children. Disgusting, but we know these things happened. He claimed to have been shot himself, but it wasn’t a bad wound. I was thinking about that bullet I found in him.’
‘But the last parties hunting Bushmen were nearly a hundred years ago!’
Ian nodded. ‘Yes, Kubu, I know. I said it’s far-fetched. But still.’
Kubu thought for a few moments. Ian’s speculation wouldn’t go down well with an unimaginative, by-the-book type of detective like Segodi. And why would Segodi care anyway? There was no reason to think there was any connection between the Bushman’s age and his death. No reason, but intuition told Kubu differently. He understood why Ian had called him.
The two friends sat quietly, each lost in thought pondering the anomalies they’d just talked about. Then Kubu’s stomach announced that it was time for lunch. He grunted and climbed to his feet. ‘I’d just stick to the bland facts with Detective Sergeant Segodi, Ian. Let’s see what he comes up with. I’ll let you know.’
They shook hands, and Kubu took his leave. When he reached the door, he hesitated. He’d learnt over the years to take Ian’s hunches as seriously as his own. He turned around.
‘Is there a way of accurately estimating a dead person’s age? Like that Bushman?’
Ian didn’t reply for several seconds. ‘I’ll have to look into it. I’m not sure there is. How long someone has been dead, yes. The longer the better. But not how long since the person was born.’
‘Well, send the bullet to Forensics. See what they make of it.’
Ian nodded. ‘I’ll do that.’
Kubu waved, and left the pathologist sucking thoughtfully on his pipe.