THE NIGHT THEY WERE HIJACKED, ROXY PALMER AND HER HUSBAND, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.
The African, languidly elegant in a hand-tailored silk suit, was blue-black with tribal scars on his cheeks. He spoke beautiful French-accented English, and he could have recited the Cape Town phone book and made it sound poetic. The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver. She didn’t say much, spent most of the meal hating Roxy for her naturally blonde hair and perfect American teeth.
When the cannibal paused his monologue to eat or drink, Joe Palmer tried to fill in. After the francophone eloquence, South African Joe sounded like a truck driven without a clutch.
They were at Blues in Camps Bay, overlooking the ocean, and even though they sat down to eat at nearly nine, the last of the golden light still washed the beach and the slopes of Table Mountain. Cape Town is twinned with Nice on the French Riviera, and on a night like this Roxy could see why.
She spaced out during the meal. Picked at some rock cod, drank one more glass of Cape white wine than she normally allowed herself, and let the rhythm of the African’s voice carry her without listening to his words. A necessary skill she had acquired in her years with Joe. But something nagged at her, a shard of memory that pierced her hard-won detachment.
Then she remembered.
The man sitting opposite her, taking delicate bites of duck l’orange, had been caught on a news camera during one of his central African country’s endless civil wars. He’d cut the heart out of a living enemy, pulled the still-beating organ from the man’s chest, and taken it straight to his mouth and eaten it. Grinned at the camera while he chewed.
No French accent was going to smooth that image away. Roxy lay down her knife and fork and sipped her wine, staring out at the moon rising over the waves. Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let’s go to the bathroom."
"I don’t need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.
The bottle blonde battled brutally tight Diesel knockoffs and six-inch heels and dragged herself to her feet. Roxy moved through the tables of Cape Town’s rich, tanned, and mostly white diners. The Ukrainian teetered after her. All eyes were on Roxy. She could still do that— draw the looks— even though thirty was a memory.
They walked into the tiled and scented bathroom, Michael Bolton dribbling from the ceiling speakers. Roxy went into a stall, shut the door and sat down. She didn’t need to pee, but she needed a minute on her own. Just to keep herself cool and in the moment, as they say.
When she came out, the woman was doing a line at the basins. "You want?"
Roxy shook her head as she rinsed her hands. She hadn’t touched blow in years.
"Where do you meet him?" Sniffing, wiping her nostrils, looking at Roxy in the mirror. "Your husband?"
"In a place pretty much like this." Roxy dried her hands and did one of those meaningless things that women do to their hair in front of bathroom mirrors.
The whore tried a smile, revealing pre-Glasnost dentistry. "Maybe I too get lucky. If you can, so I can."
"Sure." Roxy said.
Thought, Like fucking hell, Chernobyl-mouth. But was she so different from this woman? True, she’d never hooked, but her years as a model had been filled with rich men who had paid for her time and affection in other ways.
Just as Joe did now.
She left those thoughts in the bathroom.
DISCO DE LILLY’S curse was that he was just too drop-dead gorgeous. Everybody told him so, from when he was a kid right up to today. His beauty, as beauty can, had opened doors for him. But it had also caused him no end of fucken trouble.
As he sat in the passenger seat of the stolen Nissan, his butt muscles unconsciously clenched at the memory of that first night in Pollsmoor Prison. An ordeal that had left him torn and terrified until he’d found his protector. Then his eighteen-month stretch had entered a different dimension of hell.
"Wanna catch up?" Godwynn MacIntosh held out the small glass pipe, still bubbling from the heat of his lighter flame.
Disco took a hit, held the meth in his lungs, then coughed out a billow of smoke. He needed it to settle his nerves, put the image of prison out of his mind, and help him focus on the job.
Godwynn grabbed the pipe back, and as he inhaled the last of the meth it made the tik-tik sound that gave the drug its local name. Where Disco was tall and slender, Godwynn was chunky and squat. And dark. Not something to be proud of on the color-conscious Cape Flats, where the birth of a dark child was no reason to break out the box wine and party.
Buzzing now, Disco entertained himself with the thought that if he and Godwynn were coffees, he’d be a cappuccino and Goddy a double espresso.
"Ja? What’s so fucken funny?" Goddy asked.
Disco shook his head, eyes fixed on the Benz parked three cars in front of the Nissan, on the curve. Goddy had come to Disco’s backyard hut two hours earlier. Told him Manson, head of the Paradise Park Americans gang— Goddy’s boss— had said he better not fucken come back if he wasn’t driving a Mercedes-Benz 500 SLC. This year’s model.
So they had headed over to Camps Bay with its sidewalk bars and rip-off restaurants. The fancy cars were drawn to the beachfront strip like ticks to a stray dog’s asshole.
Goddy was sitting up straighter. "Check this out."
Disco watched the couple approaching the Benz. The man, big, flabby, and white, was dressed in black pants and a light shirt— no tie— suit coat draped over his left arm. The woman was blonde, and there was something in her walk like those skinny girls on the Fashion Channel. Except she wasn’t skinny; she was built good.
"Think he’s packing?" Goddy asked.
Disco saw the man’s fat squeezed into his tight shirt like a sausage. No place for a gun. He shook his head. Goddy ducked under the dash, fiddling with the wires hanging loose from the steering column, trying to get the Nissan started.
Disco watched as the big man tossed a coin to the car guard. The Benz’s alarm chirped, and the turn signals flashed yellow for a second. The man held the passenger door open for the blonde, who slid in with a nice show of leg in the streetlight. He chucked his coat onto the rear seat of the Benz. The coat had covered the small silver case he carried in his left hand. The whitey popped the trunk and threw the case inside, shut the lid, got into the car, and fired up the V8.
"The sardines is opening the can," Disco said as the Benz’s roof slid back, revealing the two heads: one blonde, one dark.
The Nissan coughed into life, and Goddy came back up from under the dash. "Can’t they make it no easier?"
The Benz slid out into Victoria Road. Goddy allowed another car to pass, and then he followed. Disco felt the tik in his veins and the Colt tucked snug against his washboard belly.
Time to go to work.
"YOU COULD OF made a bit more of a fucken effort, Roxanne," Joe said. The flat accent still grated on her ear after five years in Cape Town.
Roxy said nothing.
"Christ, I wish you’d get over it. I mean, for fuck sake, how much bloody longer...?" He was driving too fast, as always. Overtaking a car on a blind curve near Glen Beach.
She held her tongue. Knew it pissed him off when she ignored him. Waited for the rage that stalked Joe like a shadow.
But he only shook his head and muttered, "Ah, what the fuck..."
Roxy guessed he’d made a sweet deal with the African and was riding the glow, not wanting to sour his good mood. She watched his hands on the wheel of the Mercedes. Beautiful hands. If you didn’t see the man they were attached to, you would think they were the hands of a pianist or a surgeon. Not an overweight bruiser who sold death for a living.
The night was hot and windless as they drove up the lower slopes of Lion’s Head, toward Bantry Bay, Table Mountain a flat black cutout against the moonlit sky. The next few minutes passed in silence. She watched the moon paint the ocean silver, and she could see the V-shaped wake of a cruise ship as it left Robben Island behind on its way to open water.
For a stupid moment she caught herself imagining she was on that boat.
"I’M TAKING THE driver, okay?" Goddy kept the taillights of the Benz in sight as they wound their way up to the houses of the rich.
Disco thought of the blonde in the car ahead, the dress falling away from her legs as the white fuck opened the door for her. Pity they weren’t going to be able to take her with them.
Then he thought of prison and turned to Goddy. "Hey, brother, you not gonna fucken shoot them, okay?"
The Benz slowed, signals flashing.
Goddy slowed, too. "Chill," he said. "Only if I got to."
JOE’S HAND MOVED on the steering column, and she heard the muted ticking of the turn signal. He stopped the car in their driveway, pressing the clicker on the key chain to open the high gates. Nothing happened. He tried again, the car idling, headlights hot on the wooden gates that refused to move.
"Bloody motor’s still playing up." He reached for the door handle.
As Joe lifted himself out of the car, the dark man came out of the shadows, the gun an extension of his arm. Roxy heard her door opening, and she felt something cold against her cheek and a rough hand on her shoulder. Tugging her.
"Get out. Fucken move it!"
The second man, waving a gun, dragged Roxy from the car, her dress riding high on her thighs. She saw his face in the spill of streetlight. Saw he was as beautiful as a Calvin model. Her right shoe snagged and stayed in the car as the man pulled at her. She stumbled to the ground, grazing her knees on the brick paving, telling herself: This isn’t happening. This is stuff you read about in the papers, stuff that happens to other people. She could see Joe grappling with the man on the driver’s side. Macho Joe.
A shot, deafening in the still night.
The men were in the Mercedes, and it was reversing away and speeding off, fishtailing. For a second all she could think was that they had her shoe, her Manolo Blahnik. The pair given to her by the designer himself after a show in Milan. Then she saw Joe lying on the driveway on his back, arms flung wide like he was tanning by the pool. Roxy stood, hobbling on her one heel. Kicked the shoe off and ran to him.
She knelt beside him. There was enough light from the carriage lamps flanking the gates to see he was bleeding from the right leg, above the knee. But he was moving, trying to get up.
"Fucken bastards." Joe gripped his wounded leg with his left hand, using his right arm for balance as he struggled to his knees.
Something lay on the bricks next to Joe, something that gleamed oily and black in the light. A gun. Dropped in the struggle. Before Roxy allowed herself to think, her hands found the pistol and lifted it. Joe’s eyes tracked the movement, staring up at her as she stood, her hair a halo against the streetlight. She pointed the gun at him, amazed that her hands weren’t even shaking.
He produced a very Joe-like half laugh. "Roxy?"
She shot him right between the eyes.
Excerpted from Wake up Dead by Roger Smith.
Copyright © 2010 by Roger Smith.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.