The helicopter did not get very far, but far enough to frustrate the salvaging ambitions of the men in uniform: it strained to keep in the air, just in and above the treetops, engine bellowing raggedly and belching smoke, for several kilometres towards the nearby hills. It even managed to climb a little, just before the end, when the motor abruptly failed, and it dropped like a great broken bird. That was what killed the men inside, the extra height: their necks snapped as the big machine hit the ground, here where the trees were thinner. All except the side gunner, who jumped just before impact, and fractured his legs and pelvis. He was the only one left alive to see the monkeys, the ubiquitous vervets of the African bush, eventually creep out to investigate the cooling wreck After much hopping around it and abortive sallies towards it, one brave little fellow finally made it into the shattered cockpit, where the two crew still hunched grotesquely in their straps. His excited chatter brought the rest, who quickly swarmed into and over the cabin, grabbing everything that moved, and biting much that did not. They could not penetrate the still-intact crates at the back of the cabin, however, and they soon contented themselves with what they could carry off into the shade of the trees, from where they watched the man as he moaned and occasionally moved. As time went by he stopped doing even this as he slipped into coma. Mercifully, he was dead by the time the feral dogs arrived. There was not much left by the time the old man and the children finally came, fearfully, to see what had happened to the last of the killers of their people. It took them even longer than the monkeys to get into the cabin, but they were a lot more thorough in their stripping of the craft. They found still-usable caps, sunglasses, spare clothes, watches and three handguns. They found emergency rations and medical kits. They also managed to open the boxes.
I had had to invoke some help in finding Danielle, after determining that she and Jerry had still been an item: she had moved since last we had associated, and wasn’t listed in the phone directory, nor in any of the on-line databases I could get into. She always had been private; mark her down as a technological illiterate as well. A former mutual friend helped, after some third degree as to why I wanted to contact her. That should have warned me, but I wasn’t looking for signals of conspiracies then – or not yet. Then it was just a matter of getting past the long awkwardness of re-establishing long-dead contacts, especially with the added complication of the only real thing we had in common being her now-dead lover, and the memory of a very short and long-ago liaison.
It was about as bad as I thought it was going to be. She was tearful, and hopeless, and distracted, and bitter; I was tongue-tied and trite (“He was a good man, Danielle, we all knew that; no, of course it’s unfair…no, I don’t know what it’s like, you’re right…it’s the damn job that was the problem…”).
With that last comment I inadvertently touched all the right buttons – and I do wish I hadn’t….
She snapped upright and glared at me. “No, it wasn’t!”
I gaped at her dumbly. “Well, they were always making him go off somewhere…” I tailed off tamely.
The air between us was stiff.
“No, they didn’t – he wanted to go. He asked them to send him – to the Heart of Darkness, he said. To Conrad country, to the source of all fears…and then he must have got into trouble, and people keep phoning me, and people are sneaking around trying to pump me for information, and trying to get into my house, and…and he doesn’t even contact me when he gets back, he gets you, and, and, and, we can’t even get his body…” She was taking great gulps of air now, starting to whoop, and then all of the wheels fell off, and she just collapsed into a quivering, blubbering wreck onto the sofa.
The Conrad and the other flowery bits were all real – Danielle was like that; English majors tended to speak differently to the rest of us while we were at varsity, and it obviously stuck with some of them. I tried to pat her back, but she just waved me off without even lifting her head, howling loudly.
I was more than a bit distracted by what she had said: that was the second comment about problems with the body, and what was all that about people trying to get in, and Jerry being in trouble?
I absent-mindedly there-thered and muttered platitudes in the direction of the trembling back till the sobs died down to a sort of hopeless keening, then I excused myself to go find the phone.
I needed to talk to a pathologist – to the King of the Flesh-Eaters, in fact. However, Ghoulman Reeves wasn’t taking any calls, apparently. And no-one would say why. And they asked me why I wanted him, and wouldn’t I leave my name and number?
I was sure I recognised the voice on the other end – though she sounded really strained – and I was going to say “Cut the shit, Patricia, this is Bruce, remember me?”, but I was getting a little paranoid thanks to Danielle, and she seemed to be pulling it back together anyway, so I left them with a “No, it’s alright, I’ll catch him later”, and cut her off in mid high-pitched -“No, please, we’ll take a message, just leave…”
I met the lady in the hall of her Observatory Victorian (high-ceilinged Chelsea gem, small enclosed garden, yellowwood floors, ideal for young executives…), sniffing slightly, but otherwise not looking too bad. I was just manouevring awkwardly around her, before starting the necessary-but-painful “Yah, sure, see you, keep in touch” type of platitudes – when the doorbell rang. We both looked at it dumbly.
She eventually solved the impasse by bursting into tears again and fleeing, so I stamped off and opened it up. Idiot!
“Ja, is…Mevrou…?” said a chunky large man standing silhouetted against the late afternoon sun on the step.
“No, sorry, she’s not feeling…I’m a friend, just visiting…”
“No, of course, it’s Doktor Davies again, ne?” said a delighted familiar-sounding gravelly voice.
Superintendent fucking Steenkamp, again.
I groaned. Too loudly, obviously, because then he asked if was alright, and yes I was, but how was the lady, and no, she was upset, and eventually: “Well, maybe I can help you, Superintendent?”. Idiot!!
The cause of it all, the cause…. I will remember you, Superintendent Steenkamp. All my life, or what’s left of it.
He sat down in the lounge, again looking as though he had known the house all his life. Danielle had disappeared somewhere; I couldn’t even hear sobs anymore.
“So , Doktor…you comforting the lady? You know her quite well then? You didn’t say…?”
“Yah…well, she’s just run off crying, and I was about to leave…. Yah, we were…friends…a long time ago.”
“Ja, sorry…listen, man, there’s something funny going on with your friend Jerry, you know?”
Oh, Christ, I thought, not you too.
“You know about it?”
“Dani said a few things…” Arsehole! What was it about this man that made me into an anxious schoolkid? Probably the same thing that had made me an anxious schoolkid: the calm authority of people who know how to use power.
I can’t let silences grow comfortably; no, I have to fill them.
“Yah, well, she said people were hassling her, and phoning, and trying to get in…”.
A silence grew. Thank God, he broke it this time.
“No, well, it’s just…we picked up this skollie just earlier today, we think he robbed your friend…”
Is that all, I was going to say, when:
“…and he told us these wit mense were going after him first…guys in suits”. The flesh prickled down my neck.
“Hang on, didn’t you tell me he was knocked down? Now you’re saying white guys mugged him??”
“No, no, ja, he was knocked down, by a car, but then these white guys were searching him, and my oke and his chommies in a taxi saw it and thought, magtig, why should wit mense get all the goodies, and they jumped in”.
“And you don’t think this is all a story, Superintendent?” There, I thought, learn your job!
“No, man – you see, my oke had a whole lot of chommies. And they dondered the white okes up a bit, and took some stuff off them, too.”
“So some of the stuff was still with my oke when we got him.” A silence again. I thought, what does this damn man want? I was about to ask: did he just come round for a chat, was he lonely or confused?
“…and it was very interesting, you know what I’m saying?”
“No. No, I don’t, and frankly Superintendent, I think this is all a little…”
“…so I was coming round to your friend’s girlfriend to ask her what was going on. It was spy stuff, you see – surveillance stuff.”
I was struck dumb.
“Ja, I thought that would get you”, the bastard chuckled.
He leaned forward, and suddenly he wasn’t so shabby anymore, and he didn’t sound confused. And he had a very level gaze, and he didn’t look friendly, and I felt a chill as I remembered all those old stories from my radical friends about the defunct Security Branch – and he was surely the right vintage, and hadn’t I heard about a Steenkamp somewhere?
“And it was from America. And the okes were tough, but not so skerm as our Capeys, ne? And they talked like Americans. So, Mister…Doktor Davies, what did your friend do to piss off the CIA? And how are you involved in this, really?”
Oh, shit, I thought, Jerry, what the fuck have you got me into?
I couldn’t have guessed.