The young men had been marching for days, in a loose formation on both sides of the dirt road. They had developed an easy sort of slouch, these ones that were left; swinging along, festooned with bandoliers and grenades, almost every one with Africa’s great equaliser, the AK-47. Rubber calf-high boots, muddy, baggy fatigues, slouch caps – and not a few with T-shirts and shorts, and car-tyre sandals; caught up from the villages they had passed through. A liberating army, this; they had marched all the way from the eastern border with Rwanda, and they planned to go all the way to Kinshasa. They had fought the Simba, the Interahamwe, the Mai-Mai, and even some Zairean Army regulars, and they were still advancing.
The young man with the RPG-7, Justus Kigame, was especially proud. He had trained with great dedication to carry that weapon; never mind that it was heavy and unwieldy; never mind that he would fire it far less often than his colleagues. In the last week he had personally taken out three APCs, or what passed for them out here in western Zaire – basically 5-tonne trucks with some excuse for armour – and his prestige was high at the moment. So he swung along, weapon across his shoulders, forearms draped across muzzle and stock, lustily singing out their marching song in his Tutsi dialect with the rest of them: “Mobutu, we are coming; run, you rabbit, run…” – even if he were dead, it was a fine song, and anyway, no-one had yet come up with another. He saw the front of the column, some fifty metres ahead, had broken their march; they were bunching, and starting to go up a side road flanked with a thick hedge. As he approached, he saw the fence beyond the hedge, the imposing double gates, the guard posts – now deserted. The gates, however, were chained shut. There was a small noticeboard on the gate column – but Justus could not read French, or very little of anything more complicated than a reading primer, come to that. The sergeant beckoned to him, to come with his rocket-launcher – he presumed to blow the gate. He approached eagerly, unlimbering his weapon, calling to his reloader.
A sudden loud clattering broke their rhythm; the roar of an engine stressed to the limits, the whipping of a helicopter’s rotors gathering speed. The big black craft slowly rose into view perhaps thirty metres off behind the hedge, kicking up dirt and stones that blew among the men. When it was perhaps fifteen metres up, they saw the helmeted man in the open door, behind the ominous-looking belt-fed HMG. The helicopter put its nose down slowly, and began to drift forwards – as the gunner loosed a quick burst into the ground in front of them – and into the sergeant’s leg. He fell, screaming – and the squad reacted instinctively. The front rank went down, rolled over, fired up; rear ranks scattered for the hedge and partial cover, and opened up as they were able. The helicopter was moving faster now, and Justus moved quicker than he ever had, to kneel, load, hold breath, aim…and press the trigger, for a shot that seemed to have gone astray, as the big bird flew on. Then the smoke cleared, and he saw the ragged hole at the back of the cabin; saw the smoke trailing out, heard the engines’ roar faltering. The men around him cheered as it staggered away, sinking out of sight out over the fence. It did not look as though it would get far. He dismissed it from his mind, for now: there were wounded comrades to look after. But he fully intended to see what had happened to it, very soon: a man had to look after his prospects, after all.
I’m never good in the morning, even if it isn’t the morning – and this one wasn’t, as I saw blearily while thrashing about to find the insistently ringing phone; it was some time after 12 midday. “Bastards!”, I thought, as I finally found the thing under the bed, picked it up, and then had to listen to my so-clever software answering again: the computer must have auto-rebooted earlier to do a virus scan or something. I thought it could only be Jerry again, as they waited out the whole of the smart message – and got quite a shock when a voice that sounded like gravel being mixed in a bucket said: “Mr Davies? Mr Bruce Davies? Is that you, sir…?” “Yes…yes, this is me – sorry, I mean, Dr Bruce Davies, yes…?” I managed to get out. What the hell, I’d worked for it long enough, I might as well use it.
The voice waited an uncomfortably long while, then: “Ja, meneer…ek is jammer, sorry sir…Doktor Davies…is that medical, sir?” And what do you care if you don’t know me, I muttered to myself, but “No, no – scientific. Or I used to be, but…”. Into another long silence. “Look – what is this about? I’m actually quite busy, so…?” A laugh that sounded about as bad as Jerry of the previous night rasped down the line. “Ja, ja, I’m sure – you see, Doktor Davies, I am Kaptein – nee, Superintendent, sorry – Steenkamp of the South African Police Services, and I’m standing outside your very quiet house with my cellphone, and your neighbour has said to me you never get up before lunch – so I thought I’d better phone, hey?”
Oh, Christ, I thought, the cops, and they’re here – and what the hell for?? And of course Mrs Coetzee spoke to him; the old bag would speak to anyone walking by – and especially about me, it seemed. As my mind raced, I dimly heard: “…so it would be nice if I could come in for a while so we could have a little chat, OK?” “What – what about?” I managed to get out, then my blood chilled as he said “About someone who’s dead, Doktor, with your name and address in his pocket – so I would appreciate it if you could let me in, hey?”.
I staggered out of bed and into some more-or-less clean jeans and a T-shirt; looked and myself in the wall mirror and remember saying “Christ!” at the stubble and red eyes and the thatch hair, then I managed to set off the burglar alarm on the way to the front door, and had to reset it, and then pulled open the door into painfully bright sunlight. And there was the man who would cause me such grief in the time to come: a big, baggy weather-beaten man with a nicotine-stained moustache in a shabby suit standing on the step, smiling benignly at me. Superintendent fucking Steenkamp in the flesh.
I was in the process of saying “Come in”, when he bustled around me and I found myself being escorted down my own passage in the direction of the lounge, his hand under my arm. It was all so bewildering that I was sitting sunk into my sleeper couch with him looming over me before I could quite figure out what had happened. When, of course, the alarm monitoring company rang, and I had to struggle up and get to the nearest phone in the bedroom one door back down the passage and go through all the business of code words to reassure them I wasn’t being held up. And as I hung up and turned around, there he was literally breathing down my neck; so close I nearly head-butted him in the moustache. He still had that benign smile, and he took charge again, so I found myself sitting on my bed with him looming over me once more.
In retrospect it was all just technique on his behalf; he effortlessly dominated me and put me on edge, and I babbled. So it worked, wonderfully. There’s no defence against professionals, and he was that in spades. Elderly, almost emphysematic, fatherly – and seriously intimidating.
He nodded at me, still smiling. “All these old Observatory houses are the same, ne? All with a long passage to the front door, and a lounge in the middle – and this is your bedroom, and the one at the front was a bedroom, but it’s now your office, ne?” I must have nodded dumbly, because he went on: “So let’s go there, Doktor, maybe you’ll feel safer, hey?”, and damn me if we didn’t end up traipsing back down the passage with my arm in his hand again, to sit down yet again.
This time he sat first, in my office chair, and I ended up in the spare and considerably less comfortable one. He made a meal of it, putting his arms behind his head and leaning back, swivelling all the way around and whistling appreciatively. “No, man, we could do with chairs like this in the SAPS, I can tell you…” All calculated; I don’t think he could help it, it was such second nature to him. Finally, though, he got serious, and leaned forward into my face, his arms on his knees.
“Ja…Doktor”- he managed to accent it so subtly in a sarcastic way – “Do you – did you – know someone called Jerry Mikalakis?”
Nasty creepy things patrolled the nape of my neck, and I could feel my chest getting tight.
“Ummm…yes, yes, I did…you mean something’s happened to him?”
“Ja…tell me, meneer…ek is jammer, Doktor…did he contact you recently?”
My mind was working overtime; I went round and round like a moth round a lamp, desperately trying to think what Jerry might have got into – might have got me into – before blurting “Yah”.
“Can I ask what about, Doktor?”
More frantic circumlocutions as I tried to think of something innocuous: I know they demilitarised the old SAP in creating the new SAPS a few years back; I know they are our friends now, and we all work together for the common good – but old attitudes die hard.
“Ah…just something for a story, some information…” Idiot!, I remember fuming at myself, and oh, what story was that, sir?
“Anything in particular…”
“Yes”, I said, suddenly inspired by my recent travails: “Yes, he wanted to know about the new commercial ventures into academic computing – I’m a consultant, you see – and how they would affect how academics use the Internet…you know, would they replace what the Yanks have cancelled, that sort of thing…” I tailed off hopefully. Good eye-glazing stuff, normally.
He sounded disappointed. “Was that all?”
“Yes, Inspector. Now, what has happened to Jerry?” My chest drew in again, and I could feel my pressed-together palms getting slippery.
“Were you a friend, sir?”
“Yes!” I half shouted, just to get the words out past the lump in my throat.
“Ja…well, I’m sorry to tell you, sir…apparently he was hit by a minibus taxi in the street outside his hotel – died almost immediately.
“No!”, I managed.
“Ja…well, it’s early to say…but maybe there was a mugging also. Anyway, all his stuff was stolen off the body, so it took some time to sort out where he came from; we are just now trying to get witnesses to tell the same story, and trying to find out what he was doing there.”
And where the hell was there, I asked myself. “Superintendent…” I managed to croak out.
I racked my brain for a way to find out why he’d called me, and maybe something else about why and how Jerry had died.
“Ummm…Superintendent, you said you found my number…and when did this happen?” was all I could come up with.
“Ag, no, man, it was a week ago today. And he had your name and number written on a paper we found in his stuff that came from the hotel – but by the time we found out where he was from, the bladdy people had moved all his stuff – and probably swiped some. Probably thought he skipped without paying, hey? Poor bastard. But that was why it took us a couple of days…”
“A week!” The superintendent looked surprised. “But…then he must have died just after talking to me!”
His eyebrows mutely interrogated me further. I babbled on.
“I think…maybe he could have been going to a pharmacy; he said on the phone to me that he was sick, and he sounded bad even on the phone. Thought he had a virus, or something….”
“Oh? Had he been up north, maybe? Where did he go to pick that up?”
Idiot again!, I thought to myself. “Yah, or something, maybe flu…he was a journalist, Superintendent, you know how those guys get around. What hotel was that again – I can’t remember. The Edinburgh, was it?” Sound less like you’re pumping him, jerk!
“Wag n’bietjie…no, it was the Stanley…there by Bo Buitenkant Straat. Now, Doctor – you sure you don’t know where he was?”
“No, Superintendent – well, I though it must be somewhere scummy; I heard streetwalkers or something when he phoned…why, you think he was involved in something funny?” God, I felt an idiot saying that.
The good Superintendent – who obviously still thought he was a Kaptein – didn’t seem to have noticed. Maybe it was just routine, and he wasn’t trying to catch me out after all. “No, no – it’s just that there’s some problem with the body, there by the hospital. They don’t want to release it and they wanted me to find out where he’s been. And the girlfriend, she’s getting really worried, you know?”
God knows why, but I babbled my way right into it. “Hell, Superintendent, maybe I can help -who is it at the Hospital?”
“Ja, of course, you a Doktor, hey? It’s…Doctor Reeves – you know him?”
As it happened, I did – Pete Reeves had had the office three down from mine, in the old Pathology block. He was in Forensic Pathology – the flesh-eaters, we used to call them, and he was eerily true to stereotype. A weird nerd who liked to hang out with the dead – and preferably as strangely dead as possible.
“Yah – let me call him, and see what’s the problem. And…”
“Anything else interesting, Superintendent?”
He just looked at me, one eyebrow raised. I fished, desperately: “I mean, clues about what he was working on, maybe?”
The silence lengthened. “Look…maybe I could help out? I knew something about what he was doing…” I cursed myself.
“More than you said, maybe?”
My turn for silence.
“Ja…well, OK – listen, I’ve got to go now…” – my heart leapt, only to plummet when he went on: “…maybe you should come in to the office and we could talk some more about it, hey?”
Trapped…! Idiot! I’ve probably never felt as stupid, or as manipulated.
“In Cape Town Central Police Station – you know, the old Caledon Square. Maybe you had business there sometime?” A gravelly laugh.
SAPS humour: I didn’t respond. The place had been – still was – notorious; plenty of my student generation had seen the inside of it during the last days of the old regime.
“Sixth floor, office 615. Maybe tomorrow morning? Ten, maybe? That not too early for you?”
I suppose I nodded.
“See you then, Doktor, hey?”. He sighed then, and seemed to struggle up to his feet. I noticed then how grey his face was under the tan and the nicotine, and how he seemed to breathe hard. He stood a while in front of my computer, shaking his head. “Man, I’ve never thought I would hate rugby, but at my age…”. Belatedly, I saw the cauliflower ears of the long-time lock forward, how shapeless his nose was, and noticed just how huge his hands were. He straightened up, and I swear I heard his spine crunching. Then: “Man, but I never got the hang of these things”, he was saying, gesturing at my computer. He leaned forward to look over his spectacles at the screen – yes, it was on, had turned itself on like I thought it had – and I became aware with a sinking feeling that my work was still spread out all around the PC. Said work consisting of lurid and highly suggestive photographs of improbably busty girls, and some very primrose text, of the kind that promises untold pleasures without being too explicit. He turned to smile benignly at me again, and I thought, fantastic, he hasn’t noticed, and he said: “Ja, my friend, it’s amazing what people find attractive, hey?”, and my heart sank again. He gazed at me a while, then shook his head as if to dismiss a train of thought, and turned to the door. I was so eager to see him out that I ran straight into him as he suddenly stopped and turned. He looked down at me over his specs as I bounced off his ample mid-section, and said abruptly: “Nie, meneer, maybe I’ll just call you when I need you – OK?”
I suppose it wasn’t a question, because I was anxiously agreeing as he turned again, and left. I came to myself a little later, slumped in my desk chair with my face in my hands, gazing blankly at the wall. I could see the phone icon was blinking away as the computer was processing something. Must have recorded something again, I thought. I reminded myself to disable it.
The bugger had really known what he was doing – and played me like a fish, given just a crumb of something to go on. Why, oh why did I let myself get into these things? Fatal curiosity, probably – the same thing that gets you into science, and then doesn’t let you out until you’re kicked out. Hopefully he’d lost interest at the end there, when the Doktor turned out to be a little elss than he’d thought – but then he’d spoken to Mrs Coetzee, hadn’t he, so he probably hadn’t thought much of me to start with. Well, I was involved now – might as well get involved further, I supposed.
Truth to tell, I was still more concerned right then with my most pressing problem – how to make my enforced career move finally earn me some money, after some months of failing to do just that – then with messing around trying to help someone I’d almost forgotten about, who turned out to be dead anyway.
Said career move had had a long and slightly sordid buildup, which had resulted in me resigning a perfectly secure if not particularly lucrative academic post, in order to keep somebody else from being victimised. And incidentally, to keep me from being publicly censured. The end result was my ending up with a respectable little pension fund payout, a great deal of experience in molecular virology, a fairly considerable degree of familiarity with computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web, and some experience in teaching. Most of which was of very little use in trying to find employment outside of the academic sphere in and around Cape Town or in fact anywhere: the academic sphere had been effectively barred to me by the sincere and very real threat of being blackballed to the best of his ability, by my former Head of Department.
So what do you do if all you know how to do is play with word processing and other more specialised molecular biological software, set up and administer Web pages, and teach people who are supposed to be capable of teaching themselves?
The respectable answer – what you do during the day – is freelance bioinformatics: this is the outwardly very boring (and inwardly too, frequently) art of making and supplying information out of biology. Modern biology involves a stunning degree of number-crunching and database construction and accessing, and those who have the necessary familiarity with the science and with computers are supposed to be in high demand. Except that, in academia, demand does not necessarily supply money.
The not-so-respectable but more lucrative answer – what you do at night, or during lulls in the respectable stuff – is being Webmaster for one of the smaller and less reputable Internet service providers. Meaning that you do data searches for people who are too ignorant or too busy to do it themselves, and you design and maintain Web pages for molecular biology and medical laboratories, poetry magazines, massage parlours and bondage equipment outlets. And run courses in how to download biological information off the Web, then (unofficially) find and download and catalogue and link megabytes of hard-core porn for some of the richer clients. A rich and varied job experience, and one I was becoming heartily sick of.
However, there were respectable and potentially lucrative prospects on the horizon: some of my more sympathetic and better-funded scientific clients who had been talking vaguely for some time about setting up a dedicated facility, had finally started to get a bit more serious about things. They wanted to establish a regional commercial bioinformatics service centre for the Western Cape region, to serve the three Universities, the Technikons, and the regional Health Service. This would be aimed at replacing what had rapidly become a totally archaic and largely redundant local government and University setup, and would go some way to re-establishing what we had had before the largest and most useful part of the Internet – the federally-funded US government databases and search facilities – had so suddenly become off-limits to us. Totally and mind-numbingly boring to the man in the street, but potentially meat and drink for me, and for a few like-minded and similarly underemployed friends. There was just the little hurdle of convincing the clients to go with me, and getting them to either ignore what could be very damaging references, or not to solicit them in the first place. Which was sufficient of a problem that it was interfering with my sleep, and tending to occupy the centre of my attention.
I sat down at my computer to see what was going on: apparently it had automatically rebooted sometime in the morning to run a virus scan, which had just finished. However, it had also answered the phone, and then apparently not hung up and was still recording via the headset, eating up my hard drive. I terminated the phone program, then did what I should have done two days earlier.
I phoned Danielle.