Themba Msamaya didn't suspect a thing on the morning he opened his door to death.
He was halfway through his first cup of tea when the knock came. Over the past few months, he'd developed something of a ritual. He'd get up early, boil the kettle and dunk a bag of cheap, Shoprite own-brand tea into a chipped South African Airways mug. He'd learned to do without milk, but a teaspoon of sugar was an essential he couldn't forego. Black tea didn't have to be so strong — it tasted better weak, in fact — and he had discovered one teabag could easily stretch to two mugs.
He would drink the steaming, reddish brew while sitting at the desk in his tiny Yeoville bedsit, yesterday's papers open at the Classifieds, his elderly laptop ready to browse the Job search websites.
Over the last few days, his searching had become more stressful, because his useless Internet connection, slow at best and unreliable at worst, was close to reaching its cap. He'd nearly got through the five hundred megabytes that his low-spec package allowed him, God knew how, seeing it was only the twenty-second of the month, and all he'd been using it for was trying to find work. But once the threshold was reached, he would be cut off. Rudely, instantly and without any warning. It had happened a couple of times recently, once while he was right in the middle of sending off his cv.
Today, JobSA was slow to load and Workopolis had no new listings, but his favourite site, nats Careers, was advertising a position that looked promising.
Email us your application and cv, the advert read. All companies required candidates to do that these days. Phone calls appeared to have become redundant.
A quick read through the well-worded cv that he'd paid a specialist company to put together for him five months ago. Now he wished he hadn't wasted the money on it.
Did he need to change anything in the accompanying letter?
He scanned the document once more, slowly, even though he knew the damn thing off by heart. He thought it sounded fine. As fine as was possible, at any rate. He attached it and pressed 'Send', willing the email to go through the first time, praying that the connection would not drop, as it often did, forcing him to repeat the task and gobbling up even more of his precious bandwidth allocation.
A series of clanging sounds and shouts from outside disturbed his concentration, and he looked up, frowning. Was this his neighbour causing trouble again? Themba didn't know him by name, but he was convinced the guy was a drug dealer. People were in and out of that room at all hours, talking, partying, banging on his door late into the night, and occasionally on Themba's door by mistake; and just last week he had overheard an argument that had ended in a gunshot.
No, it couldn't have been his drug-dealing neighbour. The morning after the gunshot, he'd been on his way to the shops when he'd seen the man hurrying down to the garage, carrying what looked like a hastily packed gym bag, half zipped up, in one hand, and his firearm in the other. A few minutes later, Themba had heard the unmistakable roar of his black, souped-up, spoiler-decorated bmw. The man had left and, as far as he knew, he hadn't been back since.
Then Themba realised what the sound was. It was the dustbins being emptied. There had been a municipal strike for weeks, and the bins lined up on the uneven paving outside the building had quickly gone from full to overflowing. Black bags had split open and vomited their contents onto the pavement and into the road. Those that hadn't split had been torn apart — by stray dogs or vagrants or both, he guessed. Crumpled plastic now littered the sidewalks, mushy piles of leftover food had swiftly started stinking in the heat, and dirty nappies disgorged their foul contents, which were soon blanketed by flies.
Now he could hear the loud drone of the garbage truck and the clanking of its crushing mechanism. Above this, the shouts of the workers, more clanging as empty metal dustbins were flung on their sides, and the clatter of the plastic wheelie bins being upended.
And then a second, closer sound, only just audible above the racket. A quick, polite-sounding rat-tat-tat on his door.
Themba glanced at the email. It looked like it was going through.Then he got up from his wooden chair and squeezed past his bed. As he wasn't expecting anyone, he was sure that whoever was outside the door was yet another customer looking for his drugdealer
He twisted the Yale latch open with his right hand, pulled the door handle down with his left, and opened the door a crack, snapping out a rather irritated 'Yes?' before squinting out into the shady corridor.
That one word was all he had time for. The door exploded open, its handle wrenched out of his hand, its edge smashing against his temple as he staggered backwards and a sharp, stabbing pain lanced through his gut.
Themba slammed against the rickety desk and sprawled down onto the floor, blinking as hot rivulets of spilled tea splashed down onto his face.
And then a black-clad figure wearing a dark mask was inside, standing over him. The pain in his stomach was dreadful; he could taste blood in his mouth, but in his shock he hadn't begun to associate any of this with the slim black handle that now jutted from his midriff.
Until his assailant leaned forward, grasped the handle with a gloved hand, and pulled.
The pain was sickening. Themba screamed, a shrill, breathy sound, and clamped his hands over the deep gash, now pouring blood. He glanced up, only to see the knife coming at him again.
'Don't ... ' he begged, but his voice had reduced to a whisper.He mouthed the words, 'Please don't.'
He wanted to plead for his life, to explain that this wasn't fair, that this was the wrong room, that he was not the right man. That he didn't deal in drugs and never had. That this was all a terrible mistake.
But there was no time.
He tried to stop the blade, tried to grab it with his right hand, but it sliced cleanly through his palm and buried itself in his chest.
And then his attacker was gone.
Themba found he couldn't move. He wanted to cough, but he couldn't do that either. All he could do was lie in his own blood, watching as a dark mist rushed to cover the smeary ceiling.
Outside, the clanging of the garbage truck faded into silence.
Jade de Jong was fighting to convince herself she wasn't going to drown.
She was six and a half metres under the surface of the sea and sinking, with tons upon tons of water forcing her downwards. She was burying herself in a pale-blue grave, every movement of her fins taking her closer to the ocean's sandy floor and further from the sky and sun above.
She reached out in front of her, striking forward, pushing just a tiny fraction of all that water aside, noticing that her cupped hand looked sickly white in the dim light. Like a sea spectre. Or perhaps more like a corpse.
The thought paralysed her with fear — she was unable to keep going down, unable now even to breathe. Just as she had been on the dive before. And the dive before that.
God, get me out of here, she thought frantically. She knew how easy it would be to escape. A few kicks with her flippers and she could be hurtling up out of the depths, shooting to the surface, ripping the mask off her face. The next big breath she took could be real air. Proper air, not the dry-tasting canned stuff in the tanks on her back.
With her heart banging so hard she was sure it must be sending a subsonic message of panic to all sea life within a two-kilometre radius, Jade forced herself to stay put. She did what Amanda Bolton, her personal scuba-diving trainer, had told her to do. Gently exhale and send a rush of bubbles upwards. Then breathe in again. Slowly and easily. She had to force herself to relax, a command that Jade had realised on her first dive was physically impossible. This time, though, she managed to keep her fear at bay. She took a long, relieved gulp of air and then signalled to the wet-suited figure who was a few metres in front
of her and looking at her enquiringly, waiting for her to communicate what she wanted to do next.
Closing her fist with her thumb towards the surface, Jade gestured upwards.
Get me out of here.
Amanda signalled back 'ok'. Escaping locks of her dark hair swirled, mermaid-like, around her face. Then she made another sign that Jade knew meant: slow. Take it slow going up. No panicking.
As Jade kicked towards the surface, she saw a shoal of fish swimming past. Small silvery-looking fish that seemed almost impossibly bright in the clear water — a scattering of marquise-cut diamonds on an aquamarine backdrop. They swam fast and purposefully, as if they were late for an important appointment.
Pretty, yes. But worth the dive? Jade didn't think so. And as
for the rest of the sea life she'd heard so much about but hadn't
seen yet, like the huge leatherback and loggerhead turtles that
the St Lucia estuary was famous for — well, she was sure there'd
be some in a glass tank, ready for viewing, at uShaka Marine
World in Durban.
Jade had thought learning to scuba dive would be easy, but it
was proving to be the opposite. She'd managed her training
dives — eventually — but open water terrified her, and she had
never thought it would.
She'd expected that she'd take after her mother in this regard, as she did in so many other ways. Her late father had been a reluctant swimmer, a man much more comfortable out of the sea than in it. Although he'd never spoken much about her mother, Jade was certain that she remembered him saying once how much she had loved scuba diving.
Now she realised she must have inherited her father's dislike of the ocean.
At last she broke the surface and pulled off her claustrophobic mask. Treading water, she looked up gratefully at the cloudless sky and felt the coolness of the air against her face. It wouldn't have this effect for long — not in this heat, with the humidity smothering the estuary like a pillow, but the first few minutes out of the water always felt refreshing.
Miles of sea all around her in every direction, stretching all the way to the horizon on the seaward side, and the faraway rolling outline of the forested dunes on the shoreward side. The vastness of that distance didn't worry Jade too much. It was the depths below her that gave her the shivers.
Then Amanda surfaced beside her.
'Short break?' she suggested.
Jade nodded and they swam over to the dive boat waiting nearby and clambered on board.
'Well, that seemed to go better,' Amanda said in an accent that Jade had originally thought was from southern England, but which she had laughingly confessed was pure East End. 'Fifteen minutes under, this time. That's two minutes longer than on the last dive, and you went further, too. Quite an improvement, I think. How do you feel?'
'It still doesn't feel like my environment. I'm just not comfortable going so deep, although I know by scuba standards six metres is barely underwater.' Bending over, she eased her fins off, then unzipped the wetsuit, which was already feeling too warm, and pulled it down off her shoulders.
'You'll get there, don't you worry. Most people take to it like a fish to water, 'scuse the pun, but some never get the hang of it. Others learn how to do it, but just don't like it.'
'Does that ever change?' Jade asked, glancing longingly at her T-shirt and shorts that were folded up on the bench.
'Oh, it often does.'
Amanda sounded so chirpy that Jade had no idea whether she was humouring her or not.
'Just you wait. In a couple more days, we'll have you out on
the big boat, diving in a group with your boyfriend. That's where
you really want to be, isn't it?'
Jade didn't miss the sympathy in her voice. But she couldn't argue with her, because the scuba instructor was spot on. One hundred per cent correct. She didn't want to be here, taking private lessons that were being offered at no extra charge, thanks to Amanda's kind-heartedness. She did want to be out on the big boat with police Superintendent David Patel, who might or might not be her boyfriend, but who was most definitely going to be her partner on this trip.
David already knew how to scuba dive, so Jade's plan had been for her to complete the diving course with a couple of other beginners at the resort, which rejoiced in the name of Scuba Sands, and then to join David in exploring the rich coral reefs that lined the estuary in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park — reefs that Jade had been interested to learn were the southernmost in the world.
But nothing had gone as planned.
Jade's own fear of open water had held her back. The other beginners had completed the course without trouble and had left that morning for a full-day's diving out on the reef with Monique du Preez, the other instructor.
And David wasn't even at the resort yet. He'd been supposed to drive down with Jade at the start of the week, but he had been delayed in Jo'burg after a drug-smuggling case he was working on had, in his own words, 'hit the bloody fan harder than a shit-bomb'.
He'd messaged her last night to say that he was getting an afternoon flight from Jo'burg today and would be landing at King Shaka International Airport in Durban at four-thirty. As soon as she and Amanda got back to shore, Jade would set off to fetch him.
But before that, she had one more dive still to get through.
She stepped over to the prow of the boat and grasped the metal railing. Just a few minutes out of the water and she was already starting to feel sweaty in the oppressive humidity. The sea was as flat and still as a pond, and the sun burned down from a metallic sky.
'I'm not used to failing,' she admitted. It was easier to say the words when she wasn't looking at the other woman. 'Up till now, I've always managed to do everything I've wanted to do. Some things have been easy, like ... '
She stopped herself. She'd been going to say: like shooting.
That had come naturally to Jade. The first gun she had fired at the age of twelve had been a rifle almost as tall as she was, and she'd hit her target — a Coke can — at a distance of more than a hundred metres.
Admittedly, that gun had had telescopic sights. But the handguns she'd fired since then had not. Guns felt like an extension of her own body; shooting was almost as instinctive as breathing.
She had made a promise, though, that she wasn't going to talk about her work activities on this holiday. Not with David there. Her ability to shoot, and what she had used it for, had caused problems between them that, at one stage, Jade had feared were permanent and would never be resolved.
Amanda laughed, obviously misinterpreting Jade's sudden silence. 'Yeah, I know. You can never remember all the things you can do easily when you're thinking about the one thing you can't.'
'Cycling,' Jade said, picking a safer subject. 'I love to cycle. I bought a mountain bike a while ago and I try to get out on it at least three times a week. I'm good with uphills. They don't bother me at all. Not when I'm cycling or when I'm running. I do that as well, and I've been training myself to run barefoot.'
'Well, that's incredible. Hills just about kill me, whether I'm on a bike or my own two feet. But I can see you keep yourself fit.'
'I'd like to do the long cycle races one day. The 94.7 kilometre one up in Jo'burg and the Cape Argus.'
'Ah,' Amanda said. 'And have you done the L'Eroica Chianti cycling race in Italy? I was wondering when I saw your shirt.'
Jade glanced across at her faded T-shirt that had, indeed, been a free gift to all entrants from the race organisers a few years back. She hadn't completed the ride, though. She'd been assigned as security detail to a wealthy British businessman's wife who'd gone there hoping to cycle the medium-distance route. But the woman hadn't put in nearly enough training for the tough,135-kilometre course over rough, hilly terrain, and she'd been forced to retire before she'd even reached the halfway point.That meant that, as her bodyguard, Jade had had to swallow her disappointment and put her own bicycle in the back of the pickup van together with her client's when it came round to collect the stragglers.
'I didn't finish it,' she said. 'I was there with a client who pulled out before the halfway mark. I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do. It felt like a failure, too, even though it wasn't my fault.'
Amanda gave a small nod and a shadow crossed her face.
'Failure's never easy to cope with,' she said in a soft voice. 'Especially when it's not your fault.'
Her hand strayed to the small gold airplane pendant that she wore on a chain around her neck, and she slid it from side to side; an instinctive gesture that Jade had seen her make before, but thought Amanda herself was unaware of.
Taking comfort from the familiar action, perhaps.
Jade wondered what failure Amanda had experienced. Whatever it was, she clearly didn't want to talk about it, and Jade wasn't going to ask.
Changing the topic, she said, 'That's a pretty piece of jewellery.'
The dark-haired woman smiled.
'My mother gave it to me when I started work at Heathrow.'
Now Amanda's smile widened. 'No. Actually, I'm an air-traffic controller. I started out in England and then travelled around the world. That's what I'm qualified to do; what I've always done. The scuba diving is just a hobby, really.'
Jade nodded, hoping her surprise didn't show on her face. She'd never have imagined that the woman who had been so patiently teaching her to dive had held down one of the toughest and most responsible jobs in the world — co-ordinating the approach and departure of airplanes at what must be one of the world's busiest commercial airports.
'I see,' she said. 'Sorry.'
'Underestimating your abilities.'
'You wouldn't be the first one to do that. People see a dive instructor in her thirties, working in a little resort like this, and they assume she's a drifter who never had any ambitions in life. At least you asked.'
'That was my old life,' Amanda continued. 'Up until last year. I've been here almost six months now.'
'Are you enjoying the change? It must be far less stressful.'
Jade had thought Amanda would agree, but instead she looked away.
'Not really,' she said.
Her words struck a chord with Jade. Made her reflect on her own situation. She was qualified as a bodyguard and had years of experience as a private investigator, working on her own and with big firms. But that might well have to change now.
She knew David didn't approve of the work she did, because of the danger to which it exposed her. Not to mention the fact that in solving her cases she often chose to go beyond the law, or that some of the cases she handled were not legal at all.
Could she do what Amanda had done? Turn her back on her previous life and start afresh doing something else? And if so, what on earth would that new career involve? Would it be too late to finish the law degree she'd started long ago, before she had decided that her heart and her talent lay elsewhere?
One thing was for sure — becoming a scuba-diving instructor was definitely out of the question.
'Shall we go under again? Aim for sixteen minutes this time?' Amanda asked.
Jade dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands. One more dive. Another visit to the depths. The time stretched ahead of her, endless as a prison sentence, but she had to do it. The only thing she feared more than being under the water was giving up on trying.
'ok. Let's give it a go,' she said.
The tin roof of the small meeting room amplified the heat a thousand times over. Bradley felt as if the corrugated metal was a magnifying glass, and he was the bug trapped underneath.
Sweat poured through the close-cropped hair at the back of his neck. It had long since drenched the armpits of his starched shirt, sluicing straight through the thick layer of antiperspirant he'd applied earlier that morning and causing him to stink like a pig.
His chest was also slick with sweat, but his tie was still dry. More importantly, so was the large and heavy cellphone that hung on a lanyard around his neck.
He was sitting on a plastic chair in a room with a closed door, a sealed window and a broken air-con unit that seemed to be actively taunting him.
Bradley had been used to air conditioning that worked. Plush meeting rooms with upholstered furniture, audio-visual equipment, jugs of iced water and bowls of perfectly ripe fruit. There, in those cool and airy spaces, he would impress the chairman of the board, the directors, the committee members. Always aiming to be under budget and ahead of schedule, whatever marine engineering project he tackled.
He'd never found himself dripping with sweat in those meetings. And he'd never had to go into them with the kind of bad news that he had to break now. He'd always reported on successes, not problems, not that he could remember, anyway. And particularly not problems that he himself had caused.
Across the table from him, Chetty, his current employer, lifted a stubby-fingered hand and scratched his balding head. Chetty wasn't wearing a suit and tie, only a shabby golf shirt and a pair of chinos. And Chetty wasn't sweating. Chetty was the kind of man who looked like he never broke a sweat. 'So everything's on track?' he asked.
'Ahead of schedule,' Bradley said, starting with the positives. 'All ready for action. You have a full team of workers now, ready for the final assignment.'
'The work on the Karachi's hull?'
'Finished. And all the — er — special equipment you requested is in place.'
'Any other issues?'
And there it was. Should he tell them or not? Bradley had no idea. His employers had said they needed to know about everything and anything that could possibly affect the outcome of this project. But this problem was personal, something that involved him. Did they really need to be informed?
Not if he could handle it, and make it go away. But what would happen if he couldn't?
Chetty rocked back on his chair, a small smile on his pudgy face, looking for all the world like he was out relaxing on the deck of an international cruise liner and not stuck inside this suffocating little room.
'Are we good?'
In that instant, Bradley decided he wouldn't mention what was worrying him. He would sort it out by himself, in his spare time.
It would be better if he kept his employers in the dark, he thought.
'There is something, isn't there?' a voice said softly.
The words came from the third person in the room. A muscular giant of a man whose tight black T-shirt and jeans blended so well with his body that Bradley could hardly tell where skin ended and fabric began.
Bradley knew him only as Zulu. A code name or a surname — he didn't know which, and he wasn't going to ask. Even on this sweltering day, the man still gave him the shivers.
Zulu looked directly at him, as if he could see right into Bradley's guilt-stained core.
'What aren't you telling us?' he asked.
Chetty rocked forward on his chair. Its legs hit the floor with a thud.
'Well? Is there a problem?' His voice sounded suddenly sharp.
Bradley's stomach churned with sick dread. He snatched a breath and started speaking, aware that his voice was now fast and panicky.
'ok, I had a text message yesterday.' He glanced down at his knees. 'Not on this work phone. On one of my old numbers. It's nothing to do with the job — almost certainly — but it seems that an old friend, well actually an old acquaintance, is attempting to blackmail me.'
Chetty shouted so loudly that he earned a glance from Zulu.
The black man raised an eyebrow. 'Given your history, I am assuming this acquaintance is a she, not a he.'
Bradley nodded miserably. 'It is a woman.'
'And how do you know her?'
'We were — er — involved for a short time, a while ago.'
'What does she want?' Chetty leaned forward, his elbows on the table.
'Well, money, of course ... '
'What she wants is irrelevant,' Zulu said. 'What is important is this: why does she want it? What does this woman know?'
'She doesn't know about this operation. It's personal,' Bradley muttered. 'Personal stuff. An amateur attempt at getting money out of me.' He felt his face burning with shame.
'Shit,' Chetty said.
Zulu nodded, his face giving nothing away.
'How did you know who it is?' he asked. 'Blackmail, by its very nature, is supposed to be anonymous, is it not?'
'I picked up on some clues. It wasn't difficult. In one of the texts, she told me where she was working.'
Chetty let out an explosive guffaw.
'She gave away her location?'
'You're right. That is amateur.'
'Amateur, perhaps, but I would still prefer that the amount not be paid and that the problem ... is simply disposed of.' Zulu cast a meaningful glance at Bradley, who felt a fresh wave of sweat flood down his back — this one prompted by fear.
His left leg had started to tremble, too. What was wrong with him?
Bradley tried hard to suppress the thought that in his past life he had never received assignments like the one he was working on now. Be tough, he told himself. You can deal with this. You know you can.
He clamped his knees together to stop his leg from shaking, and folded his arms.
'Her details, please, just for the record,' Zulu added.
Stammering slightly, Bradley told him the woman's name, and the name of the beachside resort where she lived and worked. He knew that Zulu would memorise the address, rather than write it down. Nothing had ever been written down during their meetings, and his employers had told him that the phone he'd been instructed to wear around his neck at all times had an in-built anti-bugging mechanism that would beep if any recording devices were in the area.
Or on Bradley himself.
'I think it's best you stay out of it. You shouldn't be seen in the area at all,' Chetty advised.
'Get Kobus to do it.'
'That's all for now, then. You can go.'
Bradley got up so fast he almost knocked over his chair. He wrenched open the door and stumbled outside.
Chetty groaned as the door banged shut behind the departing project manager.
'What a bloody screw-up,' he said, although whether he was commenting on the situation or on Bradley himself was unclear. 'How'd you know he was hiding something?'
Zulu smiled lazily. 'The room is hot, but not that hot. He was sweating like a guilty man. Like somebody with a secret.'
'You think we've been wrong to trust him?'
Zulu considered the words in silence for a while.
'No,' he said. 'He is trustworthy.'
'I worry he's planning on selling us out to the cops.'
'He won't sell us out to the cops.'
'How do you know?'
'Because he is greedy and because he is scared. He is waiting for his money, and is frightened about going back to prison.'
Chetty didn't look convinced.
'Getting him paroled early might not have been enough incentive. Or is there something you're not telling me? Have you got something else on him?'
Zulu didn't reply, but his smile widened.
From The Fallen by Jassy Mackenzie. Copyright 2012 by Jassy Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime.