Standing on the front step of his farmhouse, Koenraad Meintjies stared into the hazy distance, scanning the grey-brown vista of baked soil and sparse bushes that characterised this part of the Karoo desert. Searching for any movement; listening for the slightest sound; looking for the reflection of light off glass or other telltale signs that somebody was already out there. Waiting for him, watching him.
From here, the dirt road that ran past his gate was barely visible. It snaked its way between the stunted thorn bushes and dry pans that lay to the east of his farm; a deeper channel of packed golden-brown dirt against the bleached landscape, defined only by its borders and the tyre tracks left by the occasional utility vehicles heading that way.
If Meintjies were to notice the faraway dust plume that signalled an approaching car, he would have ample time to get away. To climb into his battered Isuzu bakkie and simply take off, sticking to the little-used farm tracks that only he knew well, where he could drive as fast as the bakkie would travel, but where deeply eroded dongas and hard-to-see tyre-grabbing banks of sand would make speed impossible for the unwary traveller.
But flight was now an impossibility. As the events of the past week had shown him with dreadful, shocking clarity, he was as good as a prisoner here.
And after a childhood devoted to protecting his sisters, now, when it was most important, he had failed to keep them safe.
First Sonet, and now Zelda.
'In the end, all you have to show for yourself is failure,' he muttered.
His words were swallowed up by the hissing of the wind that always picked up at this hour, as if the giant that had been stoking the furnace of the day was finally downing his tools and letting out a deep sigh.
The rusty windmill behind the house creaked into unwilling life, starting with a low groan and then escalating into higher-pitched cries as its blades moved faster. In the tuneless shrieks he fancied he heard his father's words; the grey-bearded man in full voice, towering over his breathless congregation as he approached the climax of one of the diatribes he called sermons.
'Mislukking!' the predikant would scream, slamming his fist against the pulpit to emphasise his words. 'Failure! If you do not repent now, and prepare yourself for the Second Coming, everything you attempt will crumble into failure.'
Even though his father had drawn most of his inspiration from the vivid imagery of the Book of Revelations, his god had been a true Old Testament figure. Vengeful and authoritarian. One who demanded the full payment of an eye for an eye.
Meintjies had turned his back on his father and everything he represented many years ago, and without guilt or regret. In any case, he knew repentance would not help him now.
The wind was swirling the stench of decay from the outbuildings at the back of the house. Fetid plants. Rotting livestock. He had no choice but to breathe it in, grimacing as he did so, unable to suppress a stab of fear.
In front of him was only emptiness, something he had learned long ago to live with.
Behind him was something far worse. Death and destruction. The final legacy of what he had started doing as a favour for his sister, but which had finished with him trapped inside this nightmare. How much time did he have left?
Was she even still alive?
Abruptly, Meintjies turned away from the darkening sky and strode back inside the old sandstone farmhouse. At the door, he stopped, bent down, and grasped the weathered wooden butt of the Purdey shotgun he'd propped against the wall.
The only thing he could be sure of was that they would be here before morning. Because what they had ordered him to do here, had now been done.
Magdalena Eckhardt loved nothing better than people watching. In fact, she prided herself on being an astute observer. Her book club friends had often commented that she could read them as well as if they were one of the Lisa Gardner novels that circulated within the group. Certainly, she had a keen eye for body language and a memory for detail. She was also blessed with a fertile imagination that allowed her to fill in the gaps, to her own satisfaction at least, where observation alone failed to give the full story.
Now, she was comfortably ensconced in the embrace of one of the sought-after armchairs at Chez Chic, the Sandton coffee shop with a legendary position on the corner of Nelson Mandela Square, just a few metres away from the massive bronze statue of Madiba himself. Sipping on her soy decaf latte, Magdalena was happily appraising her fellow patrons while she waited for her two-thirty appointment with the Botox specialist in the nearby Medical Mews.
One couple in particular had caught her attention today, if only for the fact that she couldn't quite work them out. They were definitely not stereotypical Sandton shoppers.
'Stereotypical!' she remembered one of the younger members of her book club exclaiming at their last get-together. 'That's such a cool word! Such a Magdalena word, don't you agree? Stereotypical .... I love it!'
The woman had arrived first, sat down and ordered water. But no matter how far Magdalena leaned sideways, she couldn't quite see her face. One thing was clear — although slim and young-looking, she was hopelessly underdressed for this smart establishment. Black jeans, tight-fitting black T-shirt, unstylish black running shoes and — horror of horrors — no handbag in evidence at all. She was also notable for her complete absence of accessories. No earrings, chains or rings were in sight and her brown hair was tied back in a simple ponytail.
The faintest of frowns creased Magdelena's artificially smooth skin.
She must be a Goth, she decided. Or those modern kids, what were they — the emos. Surely they were teenagers, though, which made it unlikely as this woman must be in her late twenties at least. If only she could see her face better. Was she wearing any make-up? Black eyeliner would offer a hint. Black lipstick would provide conclusive proof.
And then a man arrived. Out of breath and apologising for his lateness, he'd swung into the seat opposite her. Magdalena was almost sure, and if the irritating waiter hadn't chosen that minute to ask her if she wanted another latte, she would have been completely sure, that the man had started the conversation by introducing himself.
He, too, was rather casually dressed for this establishment. He wore a golf shirt — a good brand, mind — but he'd paired it with shorts. Shorts, in Sandton City! An abomination! Worse, his long, lean legs were unbecomingly pale. He had on expensive-looking leather moccasins, and a watch that looked like a premium brand, although it was so easy to be fooled by a good replica these days so perhaps it wasn't the genuine article.
Even so, there was definitely no shortage of money there, though. A lack of taste, decidedly, but not money. The man looked extremely agitated. He was fidgeting non-stop; his fingers either tugging at the tablecloth or raking through his unruly hair — This is Sandton, you know. Would it have hurt you to put in a little gel? — and from time to time darting down to the right hand pocket of his shorts and patting it as if to reassure himself his wallet and phone were still there.
Magdalena drained her latte, slid her gold card into the leather folder the waiter had brought, and continued to watch them closely.
Why were they here, she wondered. It couldn't be a business meeting. And they weren't old friends, not if introductions had been made.
And then it hit her.
Of course. This was a first date.
Why hadn't she realised this earlier? It explained everything. The man's nervousness; the fact that the woman, despite the quietly assured way she carried herself, wasn't dressed like a Sandton City regular. She obviously didn't live in the area, and must have made a special trip into Sandton for this very important reason.
She stared, rapt. How romantic! She, Magdalena Eckhardt, could quite possibly be watching the start of a relationship that would last. The spark that might grow into a bright and searing flame. That phrase sounded rather good, she thought. She'd have to memorise it and see if there would be an opportunity to use it at a future book club meeting.
The waiter returned the folder and she slipped her gold card back into her Ralph Lauren wallet.
She was going to speak to the couple as she walked past their table, she decided, and tell them why she thought they were here. She'd done this from time to time before, and could still remember the triumph that had washed warmly over her as the astounded faces of the patrons proved her correct.
'How did you know?' one woman, whom Magdalena had pegged as an Avon saleslady, had gasped.
'Intuition and observation,' she'd replied, shrugging airily, as if anyone could do the same; as if what she had was not a special gift.
She climbed to her feet, balancing carefully on her Manolo Blahniks, which were gorgeously beautiful but with heels a fraction too high to allow for perfect comfort, temporarily denting the café's luxurious but utterly impractical Persian carpet. Then she scooped up her Prada bag and brushed a piece of fluff off her aquamarine linen jacket.
And then, perhaps alerted by her movement, the woman in the dark clothing looked round and for just one moment Magdalena met her gaze.
She felt the breath huff out of her open mouth and took an involuntary step back, balancing herself against the table with a perfectly manicured hand.
Her features were just as Magdalena had imagined them — attractive and strong and without a trace of make-up. But instead of the happy excitement she'd expected to see there, what hit her powerfully was the incredible tiredness in the woman's face — a hollow, exhausted look as if she were sick of life itself — and the cold, dead hardness in her narrowed green eyes.
Blinking rapidly, Magdalena looked away, flustered, the blood rushing to her face. The woman looked away, too, as if with that sideways glance she had allowed her mask to slip.
Abandoning her plans to approach the couple, Magdalena gathered herself together and hurried out of the café.
With an effort, Jade de Jong dragged her attention back to the man sitting opposite her. Theron, his name was. Victor Theron. A tall beanpole of a man in his late thirties, crackling with nervous energy. He could barely keep still long enough to get a coherent sentence out, and his hands fidgeted constantly, worrying at his watch strap and tugging at his hair. An outward expression of inner discomfiture, Jade wondered
'I need your help,' he said.
'I'm sorry,' she said bluntly, glancing up again as the well-dressed woman who'd been watching them earlier caught her heel on the edge of the carpet and bumped her handbag against the counter in her haste to leave. 'Mr Theron, I only came to this meeting because I was passing through the area. As I told you when you called me just now, I'm not accepting any new cases at the moment.'
A smartly uniformed waitress arrived. Jade asked for another mineral water.
'What can I get you, sir?' the waitress asked Theron.
'No. Nothing, thanks.' He paused for a moment. 'Actually, yes. I'll have a Coke.'
Jade couldn't help wondering what the effect of the caffeine would be on a man who already looked wired to the hilt.
'Look, I — I don't think you understand my situation. How incredibly important this is, Just how much trouble I'm in. Please, at least let me tell you.' He was stammering now; in his haste to get the words out they tumbled over each other, spilling into the muted background buzz of the coffee shop.
'You did give me a brief rundown over the phone.'
'I did. But you need to hear the whole thing to understand. There was ... I don't know how to put this, even. For the last week I've been in a nightmare situation. What we did was a game. We took a calculated risk. I don't know what went wrong or why. Statistically it shouldn't have — that's the truth of it — but it did.'
He pressed bony fingers against office-pale cheeks. Jade saw his hands were shaking.
She knew she shouldn't ask him but she did.
'Tell me, then. What happened?' she said.
'We went jumping last week. At night. From Sandton Views. You might know it — it's close to here. Sixty-eight storeys. It's the new and the tallest skyscraper in Sandton. The upper levels aren't finished yet.'
'When you say jumping, what exactly do you mean?'
'Base jumping.' He looked straight at her, blinking fast, and she noticed his eyes were an unusual light hazel flecked with green and gold. 'It's not legal. Not a legitimate activity at all. But for thrill-seekers it's addictive. The adrenaline rush, you know?'
Jade nodded. She knew. Although parachuting from tall buildings was not her chosen hobby, she was all too familiar with the thrill of doing the forbidden, the dangerous.
Theron took a mouthful of his Coke and then told her more of his story, speaking in rapid bursts.
'I jumped first,' he said. 'I always do, when we go together.' He blinked again and corrected himself. 'I always did,' he said.
'What happened then?'
'I don't know, Ms de Jong. I just don't know.'
'Please call me Jade.'
He gulped down some more Coke and, as if being on first-name terms had given him encouragement, let loose a veritable flood of words. 'Thinking it over now, I'm confused. If I hadn't been on such a damn adrenaline high, I might have been able to remember more clearly. I don't know what happened. Maybe she took a phone call, or her phone beeped, or something. Or maybe not. It was dark up there and I was focused on other things. At any rate, she turned away from the edge. Then she told me to go ahead and jump, and that she would follow me down.'
'You jumped, then.'
'You didn't wait?'
He met her eyes again.
'It's a difficult thing to do, jumping. For me, anyway. Takes a lot of guts. Turning away ... I don't know that I'd have been able to come back to the edge again. And I didn't know how she felt, or whether she was up to jumping that day. I remember thinking at the time that she probably wasn't going to do it. Besides, I wanted to go first, so that if there were any problems with the landing, I could get them out of the way. Make it safer for her.'
'Had she ever backed out before?'
Jade took a long breath. 'I guess there's always a first time.'
'I suppose so. Whenever I'm up there, standing on the edge, I wonder if I'll be able to go through with it.'
'So what happened to her, then?'
Jade frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean just that. I don't know what happened. One minute I was standing on the lawn down below, packing up my chute, and the next minute ...' He closed his eyes and grimaced before continuing at a slower pace and in a quieter tone. 'She was falling. I heard her before I saw her. Heard the chute flapping — a partly opened parachute makes a horrible sound.
'I ran, Jade. I sprinted over to where she was going to hit the ground, to try and break her fall, but I was too late. I didn't know what on earth had happened, but I knew from the moment I heard her hit the ground that there was no way she could have survived.'
Jade studied his eyes. Watched him blink rapidly. He wasn't quite blinking back tears, but emotion was there — so strong she could sense it, and she wondered what the nature of his relationship with Sonet had been.
A tragic accident. A partly opened parachute and a dead woman who had either lost her nerve and flubbed the jump or else simply been unlucky.
'I need to know what really happened up there.' Theron insisted.
Jade frowned. What had really happened up there after he had jumped was more than likely a secret that Sonet had taken to her grave.
From Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie. Copyright 2013 by Jassy Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime.