Annette arrived home in the dark. Her car's tires crunched on the sand driveway and the brakes squeaked as she pulled to a hurried halt outside the tall metal gate. The heater's fan was on maximum and the eight o'clock news was starting on the radio, but she didn't have time to listen. Stopping at night was risky. Getting out of the car was even more dangerous, but she had no choice. Pulling the keys from the ignition, with the useless gate buzzer dangling from the bunch, she climbed out.
She hunched her shoulders against the cold, hugging her flimsy work jacket around her as she hurried over to the gate. She passed the "Sold" sign, rattling against the metal stakes that held it in the ground. The wind was blowing hard, hissing and whistling through the long dry grass that flanked her driveway. The growth swayed and parted and she peered at it suspiciously. For a moment it looked as if somebody was crouched inside, trying to hide.
Her head jerked up as she saw movement ahead of her. Four large dogs rushed towards the gate, their shadows stretching out behind them in the beams of her car's headlights. The lead
Alsatian snarled at his followers, defending his position as the others crowded too close. Leaping and wagging their tails, the dogs pushed their noses through the bars in welcome.
Annette smiled in relief, leaning forward and scratching their coarse fur. "Hey, boys. Just a minute and I'll be inside."
She fumbled with the bunch of keys, searching for the right one, her breath misting in the icy air. The giant padlock was easy to open because it was new, but it was difficult to remove because of its size. It was wedged into the thick steel rings between the gate and the gatepost. She struggled with the stubborn metal, so cold to the touch it seemed to burn. She glanced behind her at the lonely road while the dogs whined and shoved their muzzles against her hand in encouragement.
Finally the padlock jerked free, pinching a fold of skin on her finger as it came loose. She swore, cradling her hand against the pain. She would have a blood blister tomorrow, to add to the one from yesterday.
"Got to get that gate motor fixed," she told the dogs.
Her keys dug into her palm as she wrapped her hands around the bars and shoved her shoulder into the heavy gate. The sand and rust clogging its runners made it a swine to slide open, especially at the start. Once it had been forced to get moving, it was easier. But as she started to push, her dogs tensed and one of them barked. Spinning round, she squinted into the blackness beyond her little Golf. She saw another vehicle pull to a stop in the road. It had approached silently, headlights off. Its dark body gleamed faintly red in the glow of her taillights.
Annette stared in disbelief as the driver climbed out and strolled round the front of the car towards her, as casual and relaxed as if he was a friendly neighbor stopping to give her some help. But she lived on two hundred acres of land and spoke to the neighbors two or three times a year about fencing and firebreaks. If they drove past her place at night, they would have their headlights on full and their feet on the accelerator, gunning their car down the dark ribbon of tarmac, counting the minutes until they reached home.
This man wasn't a neighbor. And he certainly wasn't friendly. Once he was clear of the car, he turned to face her. With a heart-stopping rush of terror, she saw the shape of a gun in his hand.
"No, please, don't. Oh Jesus. Help me!"
Her first instinct was to run. But the dark car blocked the road ahead of her, and there were deep drainage ditches in the overgrowth on either side. She turned back to the gate, pushing with panicked strength against its stubborn weight. If she could let the dogs out, she'd have a chance. It moved a few inches and then jammed, just as it had done the night before. The dogs were all barking now, hurling themselves at the gap in their efforts to protect her. Their noise was a solid force that pulsed against her face, but they couldn't get through to help her. Sobbing from the effort, her shoulder in agony, she knew she had no more time to try.
She turned back to face her attacker.
"Do you want my car? Here, take it." Her voice sounded thin and high and the keys jingled in her unsteady hand as she held them out towards him.
The shadows on the man's face deepened. He shook his head. He took another step forward and raised the gun.
Above the clamor of the dogs, Annette heard a metallic clicking sound. She didn't know much about guns but there was only one thing this could mean.
The safety catch was off.
Her legs wouldn't move. Her arms dropped to her sides.
She wanted to plead, to beg him for her life. But what good would it do? He had already refused her car. And her throat had become so dry, she doubted whether she could speak at all.
Her fingers brushed against the pepper spray on her key ring. It was her only chance, even if it was a hopeless one. She fumbled with the metal canister. Quickly now. Lift and spray. Aim high, go for the eyes. Praying for a miracle, she raised her hand.
The man fired twice. The first shot got her square in the chest, slamming her back against the gate. As she began to slide to the ground, the second shot caught the side of her neck, ripping it open. Gushing blood, she collapsed onto the stony surface.
The killer watched her die, and then moved over to the open door of her car, where the heater was blowing and the newsreader was telling listeners about the price of gold and the strength of the rand against the dollar. With gloved fingers, he removed her handbag from the passenger seat. As quietly as it had arrived, the black vehicle moved away. At the gate the dogs continued to bark, their eyes brilliant in the glow from the headlights, their muzzles now crimson with blood.
The highway from Johannesburg's airport was busier than Jade remembered. More cars, more taxis, queues of trucks and lorries. Forests of billboards advertised insurance and cell phones. Smog and dust smothered the city like a dirty blanket, trapped by the temperature inversion that would only lift when the summer rains came.
Road signs loomed above them and David changed lanes, forcing a BMW to veer out of the way. The driver blasted his horn and gesticulated furiously through his tinted windows.
"What's his problem?" David asked.
Jade eased her foot off an imaginary brake pedal. "Nothing, I'm sure. Carry on with what you were saying. And watch out, because there's some slow traffic ahead."
Not everything had changed, she thought. David's driving was as bad as ever. She'd hoped that in the ten years she'd been away it might have improved a little.
"Like I was telling you, I got promoted a month ago. You're talking to Superintendent Patel now. I head up an investigation unit at Johannesburg Central."
"Congratulations. That's great news."
David grimaced. "I thought so too at first. Then I realized I've landed in one hell of a mess."
"What kind of a mess?"
"My predecessor died. Heart attack. He left me with a case backlog longer than a Sandton traffic jam. I found a knee-deep pile of dossiers in his office. Literally. Stacked up on the floor. Old cases, cold cases, priority cases. I've seen three affidavits in there already that everybody thought had been lost. It took nine years of his inefficiency to create that bloody heap and now I'm getting saddled with the blame."
Jade could easily imagine what David's reaction must have been. When it came to his work, he was a perfectionist. His desk was always immaculate. In the morning it would be piled with reports and case files, their edges set square. By the evening, it would be clear. The paperwork would have been dealt with, or filed away. She'd called him a magician. He'd said it was easy. She wondered how long it would take him to sort it out. Perhaps he already had.
"How did he get to that position if he was so inept?"
"He's not the only one, Jade. You won't believe how the police force has changed. We're swamped with incompetents. If your father was here today, he'd be after half the new personnel with a sjambok, whipping them into shape."
Jade hadn't thought much about her father since she left. It had taken considerable effort, but she had managed. Back in Johannesburg she knew she'd be reminded of him constantly. Especially when she was with David. He had long been like an older brother to her. Now she couldn't look at him without imagining Commissioner de Jong hovering in the background, gazing at both of them with fatherly affection while keeping a stern eye on David to make sure he didn't transgress any of the unspoken rules regarding his daughter.
She took a deep breath and forced the image of her father firmly out of her mind.
"You mentioned a problem case when we spoke on the phone. Is that part of the backlog?"
A couple of days previously, Jade had been almost deafened by David's delighted bellow when, after a moment's pause, he'd realized who was on the long-distance line.
"Jadey! Where the bloody hell have you been?"
"I'm in the UK. But I'm coming back to Jo'burg," she'd told him.
"When do you arrive? Give me your flight number and I'll fetch you from the airport. Do you need somewhere to stay? Oh, and while you're here there's a case you can help me with, if you have time."
She hadn't been able to suppress her delighted grin. David sounded exactly the same as he had ten years ago, barking out instructions, organizing everything down to the last detail in the time it took the average person to draw breath.
Damn, it was good to see him again. Good to be back in the crazy boomtown energy of Johannesburg, too. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed the feel of the city. She'd just completed a surveillance job in the muggy heat of an English summer. The firm had offered her another assignment but she'd turned it down. It was time for her to return to South Africa.
David swung the car into the fast lane, glanced at the road ahead, and turned his full attention back to Jade. "No. I need your help with a new case. A woman was murdered a few nights ago, on a smallholding just north of here. Shot as she arrived home. It looks like a car hijacking that went wrong."
"We think some guys pulled off the road and threatened her. Opportunistic crime. But she had a pepper spray in her hand when we found her body. Seems she tried to resist them instead of saying 'Yes, sir' and handing over the keys."
"She tried to use pepper spray? With a gun aimed at her?"
"Maybe she panicked. Acted without thinking."
"And what did they do?"
"Seems they also panicked. Shot her dead, snatched her bag from the car, then took off."
Jade shook her head. She was back in South Africa all right.
"Any evidence?" she asked.
"First person on the scene was a minibus taxi driver. According to his report, one of his passengers saw the body and shouted at him to stop. So he reversed and they all got out to go and have a look. Eighteen people and one goat."
"A goat?" Jade glanced at David to see if he was joking. He wasn't. He was looking straight at her, his eyes worried and serious in his brown-skinned face. She hurriedly transferred her gaze back to the road, ready to warn him if he strayed into the path of an oncoming tanker.
"One goat and eighteen people," he repeated. "If there was any evidence nearby, it was history after the time that taxi stopped. When the flying squad got there, all they found were eighteen different footprints. And goat droppings."
"Any leads so far?"
David shook his head. "Not a clue."
"No informers?" Jade was watching the steering wheel. He wasn't touching it and the car was drifting to the left. Couldn't he see?
"Nope. We're working on it. But in the meantime there are complications." David slid his hands over the wheel and the car straightened up.
David turned off the highway and accelerated onto a road going north. Jade saw brand-new office parks surrounded by raw earth and piles of sand, and acres of townhouses where she remembered trees and open space.
"Her ex-husband Piet. He's decided the best way to speed up the investigation is to contact every newspaper and radio station who's prepared to speak to him, and create the biggest media circus since Zuma's rape trial."
"That can't be helping you."
He shook his head. "I've got journalists pestering me every time I turn on my cell phone. And Commissioner Williams is on my back wanting to know how hotshot new Superintendent Patel has managed to create more negative press in one week than the old one did in nine years."
"That could be career-limiting."
"It is already. Williams doesn't like me. I wasn't his choice for the job. He's already said he wants to take me off the case. I'd be out of the department altogether, if he had his way."
David made a few more turns, and drove down a sand road so rutted and potholed that Jade felt her teeth being rattled loose in her head.
"Where are we going?"
"To your hotel."
"Down this road?"
A couple of minutes later he stopped the car outside a gate and pressed a remote control button to open it. The thatched cottage behind it was enclosed by a palisade topped with six strands of electric fencing.
David turned to Jade and smiled. "It's next door to where I'm renting. It's secure, and best of all, it's free. I did a favor for the landlady a while ago. Her boyfriend got drunk and started threatening her with a knife, so I did the neighborly thing and arrested him. When she heard I had a friend coming, she offered it to me for you. It's yours for a month."
Jade climbed out of the car and breathed in. The fresh, cold air had a tang of wood smoke blended in with other scents that made her think of vegetation — not green, not rotting, but concentrated and crisp and dry. She could imagine staying here for a month. Perhaps even longer.
Jade had spent most of her childhood in Turffontein, south of the city. Not the best area in the world. She hadn't needed to look at the calendar to know when it was the weekend, because the couple next door would start drinking and fighting at eight in the morning, instead of waiting till five thirty in the afternoon when work was over.
She used to sit in her bedroom studying her textbooks with her fingers in her ears. It didn't stop her from hearing the screaming and swearing, and the occasional smashing sound as one of the tall brown quart bottles of beer was dropped or thrown. The broken bottles were piled up outside the house in cardboard boxes every Monday, the day the rubbish collectors came round.
Her father was a highly respected police commissioner. Despite his senior position, he couldn't afford to live anywhere else. Jade knew she needed a career that paid better than police work, so she'd decided to study law at varsity. One day, she would be a wealthy attorney and live in a huge house. When her father retired, she'd build him a luxury cottage.
Then, when Jade was in the second year of her law degree, David transferred from Durban to Johannesburg to join her father's unit, and rented a house in the next street.
"This is David Patel — my new assistant," her father had told her when she'd arrived home one day to find the two of them drinking coffee in the kitchen. The young man, dressed in a neatly ironed white shirt and black tie, unfolded himself from the wooden chair and walked over to shake her hand.
David Patel. What kind of a name was that? Jade looked up at him. And further up. He was so tall his black spiky hair brushed against the glass shade of the ceiling lamp. His expression reminded her of a hawk. But his eyes fascinated her the most, because they were the lightest gray she'd ever seen. They looked almost colorless, like water.
"When I retire, he's going to be the best detective in the whole of the South African police force," her father continued proudly. Jade blinked, surprised by her father's announcement. He didn't usually make mistakes about people, but she wasn't sure about this man. He didn't look like a detective at all. He looked like he should be out fighting with mercenaries in an exotic and dangerous location, a machine gun strapped to his back.
David looked down at her with his strange eyes, so oddly pale in his brown-skinned face. He took her hand in a gentle grasp. And then he smiled.
At that exact moment Jade changed her mind about him.
With David there, Turffontein didn't seem like such a bad place after all. And when she spent time talking to him about his job, Jade thought she might have been wrong about a career in the police force, too. Crime-fighters were heroes. At least, David made it sound that way. But when she'd toldhim she had changed her mind about being a lawyer, he discouraged her from joining the police.
"As a woman you'll be limited, Jadey," he told her. "You'll be kept in an admin position for so long you'll start to grow mold. Why don't you become a private investigator? That way you can be your own boss. Run your own show, work with the cops."
Jade liked the idea of working with David. And she had never wanted to grow mold. So she took his advice.
David walked into the well-tended garden with her. Now that she wasn't trying to watch the road for him, she had a chance to look at him properly.
She had expected that time would have stopped while she was away, that David would look the same as when she'd last seen him. He didn't.
His face was thinner and careworn, his forehead furrowed, his body more solid. Looking closely, she saw white strands gleaming in his dark hair. He still reminded her of a mercenary, but now it looked as if his fight had been harder and his victory more narrow.
She saw he was staring at her, too. She wondered what he was thinking.
"You haven't changed a bit, Jadey," he said. "You still look so damn good."
He was being kind, she knew, although she was encouraged by the unbrotherly tone of the compliment. She was thirty-four now. She had smile lines and tiny crow's feet around her eyes. Her hair was darker brown than it had been; she'd started dyeing it last year when she'd spotted the first evidence of gray. She was still slim and wiry though. Like her father she had a ridiculous metabolism that allowed her to eat whatever she wanted and stay that way.
She smiled up at him.
"You haven't changed, either," she said.
She could be kind, too.
They strolled over to a railway-sleeper bench in the shade.
He thumped his weight down on the wood, and patted the seat next to him. Jade joined him. The bench was punishingly hard on her backside, still numb from the eleven-hour flight.
David gazed at the view. She thought he looked puzzled, as if he couldn't believe that it was as real as the crime and brutality that he saw in his working life.
"The case. Could you help me with it?" he asked.
"I can't pay you. We've got no budget."
"You can owe me." Jade watched a bird with a luminous turquoise breast hop along the grass towards the bench. It stared at them, inquisitive. Then David bent to adjust his shoelace. Startled by the movement, it flew up to a safe perch on the branch of a syringa tree.
"If you were thinking of coming back permanently, it would be a good kick-start for your career," he added.
"Yes, it would."
"Why the hell did you disappear, Jadey?" He looked at her, his pale gray eyes keen and sharp under his elegant brows. "I've often wondered. You left the country so suddenly, you didn't tell anyone where you were going. What happened?"
Jade chose her words carefully. Not because David was a top-notch investigator who might pick up the slightest whiff of falsehood. But because he was her friend. She didn't want to lie. Equally, she couldn't tell him the truth. Not now. Not ever.
She settled for saying, "It was to do with my dad, mostly."
He nodded, as if he'd been expecting her to say that. She was worried he'd question her further, but to her relief he looked at his watch and stood up.
"I'd better get going now," he said. "Or else I'll be in more trouble."
They went back to the car. David took her suitcase out of the trunk, together with a beige folder containing a slim sheaf of papers.
"This file contains everything on the case so far."
"Thanks. I'll look at it now."
He slammed the trunk shut. "And this car is for you. I hired it on your behalf. It's a good choice, I think. Inconspicuous."
Jade ran her hand along the hood. "Great choice, David. Thank you very much." It was small and white, so inconspicuous she didn't know how she would ever find it again if she walked away from it in a car park.
She buzzed the gate open for David and watched him jog the short distance to the house next door. He ran up a flight of outside stairs to a room above the garage, reappearing a minute later with a tie in his hand, climbed into the unmarked vehicle in his driveway and headed down the road, honking as he passed her cottage.
She hefted her bag into the bedroom. The cottage was furnished, although the décor was too chintzy and frilly for her taste. She drew the line well before heart-shaped scatter cushions and lacy toilet-roll holders. But it had what she needed. Steel security gates, burglar bars on all the windows and an alarm system that was linked to an armed response company.
Jade walked outside to her car. She'd get to the case file as soon as she could. But first she had more urgent business, on the wrong side of town.
The industrial section nestled behind Johannesburg's inner city had boomed in the early 1900s during the gold rush, and slumped into seedy decay when the last of the surrounding mines had closed. Now, Jade discovered, it was back in business again. The traffic was worse than she remembered. Streams of hawkers threaded their way in between the queues of cars selling newspapers and squeaky toys, beanies and sunglasses, batteries and replica perfumes. Jade wound down her window and bought a bottle of mineral water from a dreadlocked man wearing a Coca-Cola T-shirt.
The place she was looking for used to be a warehouse with a sad empty plot lined with vicious-looking weeds on one side and a dilapidated building on the other. Now it was one of twenty warehouses. Jade recognized it just in time.
She stamped on the brakes and honked in front of the big metal gate. A faded sign outside read "Auto Parts." She guessed it hadn't been repainted since she was last here.
A man wearing dirty blue overalls came out to meet her. He was tall and gangly, with a dark olive complexion. The black peppercorn curls on his head had been bleached orange-blond. The effect was garishly amateur. Beneath it, his nose showed the signs of a botched re-setting, and his eyes were hard and wary.
She got out of her car.
"Jade." He wiped his oil-stained hands on his overalls before giving her a hug. "Good to see you."
They walked into the warehouse.
Jade looked around. It was so cold her breath steamed in the air. A receptionist was sitting at the table inside the door. She had long dark hair and was wearing tight pink jeans and a fluffy hooded jacket that zipped up. The zip wasn't pulled up very high, and she didn't seem to be wearing anything under the jacket. She looked like the prize performer at an Eskimo strip club.
"That's Verna," Robbie said.
"Hi, Verna," Jade said.
Verna smiled back at her. Jade thought she probably smiled even wider for men.
Inside the place was surprisingly clean and tidy. The steel shelves were stacked with parts. She wondered how many were new and how much came from cars that had been stolen.
There was a strong smell of oil in the air.
Robbie's office was at the back, protected by a sturdy security gate. He took out a set of keys and unlocked it.
"How's business?" Jade inquired.
"Never been better."
"I'm sure Verna is good for sales."
Robbie smiled. "She's good for lots of things. And for sales."
He pulled up a chair for Jade and punched a button on a CD player. Whitney Houston came crooning out of the loudspeakers. Jade was pretty certain that the CD player was stolen, and if the album had been anything else, she would have guessed it was pirated, because that was Robbie's way. But why anyone would want to pirate Whitney Houston was beyond her.
"Coffee?" he asked.
"No thanks. I had some on the plane." She hadn't forgotten the taste of Robbie's coffee. It left a lasting impression. She wasn't willing to gamble on the possibility that he might have learned how to make a better cup since they'd last seen each other.
Social obligations over, they got down to business.
"So. Same again?"
Robbie nodded. "Thought so." He pulled open the desk drawer and took out a gun. He winked at her. "This is the best I've got."
It was a Glock 19. Compact, black, stubby and functional, with a simple but brutally efficient design that always made her think of a shark. Her fingers closed around the ridged grip and she felt it nestle into her palm. It felt hard and cold and familiar. She looked at it more closely. It was very familiar. It had a C-shaped nick on the barrel that she'd been in the habit of running her fingers over the last time she owned it.
"This is the same gun."
"Am I good or what?"
She frowned at him. "You promised to get rid of it. You said nobody would ever be able to find it."
"What's your problem, Jade? Nobody did find it. That's why it's here now. I kept it safe for you. Oiled, that sort of thing. Nobody's used it since then, I'm not that daft." He ran a finger over the barrel. "It's a good piece and I didn't want to get rid of it. You know, for me, a Glock is a cultural weapon. One of my grandfathers was Austrian, which I'm sure I've told you before. That's where my white genes come from. The Nazi side of the family."
"You told me your grandfather was Irish."
"Oh. Well, I was trying to get into your pants then. Irish sounded better."
Jade sighed. "What if the Scorpions had raided you?"
"They didn't. I haven't had a problem with any of the cops recently. And if they had, they wouldn't have found it. I didn't keep it in the damn desk drawer the whole time, you know."
Jade ran her fingers over the nick again.
"You were supposed to throw it away for me."
"In a week or so you can do what you like with it. Go out on a paddle ski and chuck it in the middle of the Vaal Dam. Bury it on a mine dump. Whatever."
Jade looked down at the Glock. The grip felt cold and clean in her hand, as if it had never been exposed to the hot sweat on her palms that left wet streaks on the hard black plastic the last time she had touched it. The gun had done its job. Afterwards, she'd never wanted to see it again. She felt uneasy holding it now.
"Robbie, I don't want this one again. It's too risky. I'd prefer another piece."
"You think I know the history of everything that comes in here? You want me to sell you something that was used to shoot some bloody kid in a robbery? If they don't catch you, nobody'll be any the wiser. In any case, it's the only suitable one I have right now."
He grinned, and yet again Jade was reminded of a shark. "There's too many people dealing in guns. It's not a profitable business any more. Or a safe one. So I don't do it much. I've got a damaged piece I wouldn't sell to you, and the only other one's a Desert Eagle. You can have it if you want, but you won't even be able to get your hand around the grip."
Jade shook her head. "That's not an option, then."
"I won't charge you for the Glock. You bought it off me once already. I won't even charge you storage." He slid a cloth bank bag across the desk. "Give me five hundred rand and you can have this lot. Holster, extra mags and a stack of ammo. If you run out, it's because you've pissed off too many people. Not because I short-supplied you."
Jade counted out five notes. The currency felt unfamiliar in her hands. She saw a blue line drawing of a gloomy-looking buffalo head on the topmost note. Then Robbie's fingers covered it as he swept the money towards him and shoved it into the drawer.
"There we are then. Done deal. You can smile, you know. Be happy. You got your old weapon back. It'll work for you again. You watch."
She picked up the bag of ammunition, feeling its weight.
By sitting here with Robbie, holding an illegal, unlicensed firearm in her hand, she knew she was betraying David. But unless she went through with what she planned to do, she couldn't help him with the case. It would be too dangerous. Because Viljoen would learn she was back.
Viljoen, the convicted murderer who'd spent the last ten years of his life locked away in a high-security prison cell while Jade roamed the world. She'd timed her return perfectly — he was due to be released in a couple of days.
She snapped a magazine into place. In his own way, Robbie was right. There was nothing that made this gun different from any other. It was a machine designed to kill people. No more, no less. In a few days it would be able to fulfill its function and get rid of somebody who'd deserved to die a long time ago.
"So." Robbie continued, drumming his fingers on the table in a frantic rhythm that bore no relation to the slow love song playing in the background. "Plan's going ahead?"
"Yes. As soon as Viljoen's out. Do you still want to help?"
"I promised. I always keep my word."
The way he said it reminded Jade of the first time she'd met him, ten years ago, in the cigarette reek of the Hillbrow nightclub. They'd sat on a cracked leather sofa, their faces almost touching. They must have looked as intimate as lovers. She shouted in his ear over the pounding music. Who she was, what she wanted, why she was on the run. Why she was desperate.
When she'd finished, he shifted back on the couch and looked at her for a long moment. Then he leaned close and shouted, his lips against her ear.
"I don't think you're a cop, OK. The cop chicks I've seen are all pig-ugly Afrikaans women. But I'm giving you one chance now. If this is a set-up, walk away. Because if I find out you're trying to screw me around, I'm going to come after you and I'm going to kill you. That's a promise. And you'd better believe it. I always keep my word."
She had stayed. And she believed him then, just as she believed him now. She didn't know if Robbie always kept his word. But she knew he did when it came to killing people.
From Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie. Copyright 2010 by Jassy Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime.