Killer Country, page 1
PRAISE FOR MIKE NICOL
‘Mike Nicol is the rapidly rising star of South African crime fiction. His novels have everything I love about the genre in just the right amount: shady characters, twists, turns, murder, mayhem, humour, wonderful dialogue, white-knuckle pace and lots of authentic Cape Town colour.’
‘Watch out Elmore Leonard, here comes Mike Nicol’
‘A heady mix, and Nicol stirs it with vigour, inventiveness wit … The laconic, street-smart style is so convincingly laid-back that it may blind readers to the artistry of the writing, which is taut and economical’
‘In the top rung … Nicol’s clipped dialogue and sparse, high-impact prose recalls that of revered American recluse Cormac McCarthy’
Part One: The Hits
Part Two: The Issues
Pollsmoor Prison, 6 a.m. The chief warder frowned. No birdsong. No cacophony. There was kak in the land. You didn’t need to be a bloody prophet to know this. The hell of it was he’d just eaten a decent breakfast – thick bacon slices, two eggs, fried tomato, fried banana, toast fried in the grease. The one advantage of the first shift, a breakfast like that. If the old cookie was on duty. The old cookie a lifer with one eye who escaped being dangled over the long drop when hanging was scrapped. All because of the new constitution. The old cookie who should’ve been dropped for all the grief he’d caused. Other hand, the old cookie did a helluva breakfast.
‘You hear that?’ the chief warder said to the rookie with him. A young guy, six months out of training. ‘There’s been shit.’
The young warder looked at him, not even a light in his pupils. Dead brown eyes. Didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.
‘You feel it?’
The young warder shook his head.
Before he opened the solid metal door with the peep hatch the chief warder knew there was major trouble ahead. He took a look into the corridor. Empty as it should be. The old cookie must’ve known. Bastard wouldn’t say a bloody thing, even though he knew. Wouldn’t warn you.
He unlocked the door, let the young warder pull it open. In front of them two grilles, the corridor beyond.
‘You hear that?’
‘The silence. When you hear nothing then there’s kak.’
Trouble was in which cell. Five cells on this corridor, could be any one of them. Or all five. Only way was to check first through the peep holes. Still gave him the sweats, these sort of situations. Could be they were planning a mass breakout, come screaming at them waving knives, guns, screwdrivers. No matter what you did the hardware got in. Two weeks back this nine mil with a full load in the cartridge pitched up. Deep in the prison in maximum. How’d it get there? Bloody magic.
‘Lock the grilles,’ he told the young warder.
What he should do was get backup. But bugger that, have the youngster reckon he was chicken-shit scared? No ways. He heard the locks bang home. Drew his revolver. These savages came at him he’d take down five of them first.
‘What’re you going to do?’ said the youngster.
He glanced at the boy. How old was he, eighteen, nineteen? From some village most likely. Not a township special, this one. Too polite. Welcome to the pisshole, my china. He watched the youngster fumbling to unholster his weapon. ‘Stay behind me, okay. If I shoot, you shoot.’
‘Why they so quiet?’
‘That’s what we gotta find out.’
The chief warder went up to the spy hole on the first door, lifted the flap to check the glass wasn’t smashed. Last thing you wanted was to put your eye to the hole, some bokdrol sheep turd rams a spoke through your eye. It’d happened one time, they nailed the warder’s brain as well. Poor bastard. He was singing with the heavenlies before he hit the floor.
The chief warder peered in at the first cell, the men not even standing up, lying on their beds like it was summer holidays. He banged his gun butt on the metal door. Yelled in Afrikaans, ‘Stand up. Stand up.’ Watched them get to their feet, twenty-eight of them in a pot meant for ten. Ugly, tattooed, scrawny gangbangers. Could slide a nail between your ribs while they asked you for a smoke.
The peephole fisheyed the room. Far as he could tell from the heaps of bedrolls on the floor no one was baiting him, wanting to lure him in so they could stick twenty-eight bits of sharpened metal into his skin.
‘Stay like that,’ he shouted, moved on to the next door. Went through the same procedure with the peephole: thirty arseholes in this one, grinning at him. ‘Want to check them out?’ He moved aside for the young warder. ‘Take a long look. You check anything funny, tell me.’
‘You see it, you’ll know it.’
His armpits were damp. The taste of bacon at the back of his mouth. Dry. Harsh. This sort of situation brought Cookie’s breakfast back very quickly.
The young warder said, ‘I don’t see anything.’
‘Good then,’ he said. ‘Number three.’ He rapped his gun on the metal door. ‘Yous just stay like that, hear me?’
Not a response out of them. Everyone shut-up, waiting.
The chief warder scoped cell three, then the remaining two. In them the men all standing up, facing the door. Some bored, some smirking, some giving him the snake-tongue when they saw his eye darken the hole. He walked slowly back to cell three, wondering how to handle this. Call backup? Or go in there?
‘What’s it?’ said the young warder.
‘Check it out,’ he said. Pointed at the peephole. ‘Go on, man, look for yourself.’
The young warder did. Stood back, gabbling in his own language. Grey as ash.
The chief warder gripped the youngster’s shoulder. ‘Been a rough night in there, hey.’ He put his eye to the hole. The convicts standing in two lines. Thirteen one side, twelve the other. On the floor between them a blanket. Under the blanket a body. A dark stain on the blanket at chest level.
The young warder nodded.
The young warder swallowed. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Okay, boykie. Here we go.’
The chief warder unlocked the door, pulled it open. The convicts leered at him. He told them to turn around, face the wall, stand with their hands above their heads. They obeyed. Taking their time, waggling their arses, giving him lots of attitude, but they obeyed. Like he reckoned they would. This wasn’t about a breakout. This was about a job. Or gang initiation.
He sucked up some saliva to cover the bacon dryness in his mouth. ‘Any one of yous move, you’re dead, okay?’
He walked to the blanket covering the body. Lifted a corner. For a moment couldn’t work out what he was staring at. Then he got it. The bloody stump of the neck. The chest opened like a box, the heart ripped out. He wondered if the guy had still been alive at that point. Wondered how many of them had eaten it. The head he found in the toilet bowl. Carefully placed in there so the face gazed up at him, blue eyes wide open.
Sheemina February tapped a highlighter on the statements scored with yellow. Bank statements spread across her dining-room table. Looked up at the horizon: nothing out there to break the line of sea meets sky. A blue emptiness. She smiled. Caught the reflection of her smile in the window. Kept it muted. Thinking, well, well, well. Here were possibilities.
What made her smile, what she liked about Obed Chocho’s bank statements were the large deposits. Multiples of a hundred thousand at a time. Random entries. Mostly electronic. Two cash amounts which spoke of an inside man. Knowing Obed Chocho he’d have an inside man. Or woman. Probably woman. Women were his style.
No doubt though, Obed Chocho was a very rich man. Spent it too. Lived large. But then she knew that. Just had to look at the cars, the bling on the lovely Lindiwe Chocho to know this.
Only obstruction to Obed Chocho’s current lifestyle was prison. The reason he’d hired her. ‘I hear you’re a hotshot lawyer,’ he’d said. ‘Mighty fine. Show me. Look after my interests.’ Why she’d made herself available. Why she’d got an inside man at the bank – men were her style – to get her Obed Chocho’s bank statements. Only way to know what she was dealing with. To the cent.
Sheemina February was dealing with the sort of money that pleased her. More especially she was dealing with the sort of deals that pleased her.
She picked up her cellphone went onto the balcony to make some calls. The balcony in shadow, cool. In March the sun halfway through the morning before it reached the front of the apartments. She ran a hand lightly over the dampness on the chrome railing, something soothing about the moisture on her skin. Her left, scarred and tortured. Stared at the mutilation of her fingers, the discolouration, the glisten of water in the palm of her hand. Her rigid hand. No matter how much she willed her fingers they would never close. Nor straighten. Twitch slightly. But not close. They remained claw-like.
She brought up a number on the phone screen. Keyed dial. Listened to the ringing. Before her the quiet back of the ocean was spotted with white gulls. Earlier she’d watched their feeding frenzy on a shoal of small fish. A madness of killing. Nothing to tell of that now from this placid scene.
‘Spitz,’ she said when her call was answered. ‘Are you available?’
‘Who is this talking,’ came the reply in a weird German accent. Made Sheemina February smile. She looked down at the rocks: low tide, kelp and debris drying on the mussel beds. All very serene.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘What’s in it is your usual fee plus a percentage. At the request of a man called Obed Chocho. Ring any bells?’
Spitz said yes.
‘Good. He has heard about you. He knows your work, that’s why the percentage.’
‘How many contracts will there be?’
He came back with, ‘That is in order.’
Brought the amused smile to her lips again. ‘So you’re available.’
Instead of yes he said, ‘Ja, ja.’
‘Do you want the details?’
‘It is better not at this time.’
‘We’d prefer that too,’ she said.
Sheemina February told Spitz to be outside the Meadowlands police station at four o’clock. ‘You’re in Johannesburg aren’t you?’ she said. ‘Melrose Arch, if my information is correct? You’ll have to take a taxi to Soweto. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.’
‘That is alright,’ he said.
‘Pack an overnight bag. You’ll be meeting a man called Manga. Black like you. He’ll arrange the transport and the gun.’
‘It must be the right calibre.’
‘I know about that,’ she said.
Next she phoned Manga and set it up with him. Said, ‘No funny stuff, okay, Manga. Just get him to Colesberg, to the farm. Let him do the job. Stay out of the way.’
‘What d’you think I am?’ Manga said. ‘I can do this job. I’ve done that. You don’t need to get him.’
‘Of course,’ said Sheemina February, not suppressing her laughter.
Manga said, ‘Don’t laugh at me.’
‘You’re a funny man,’ said Sheemina February. Paused. ‘Alright, there’s a thing you can do for me, Manga. While you’re in Colesberg.’ She told him what it was, gave him an address. ‘You interested?’
‘No problem,’ said Manga.
She disconnected, slipped the phone into the pocket of her kimono, gave no further thought to what she had arranged. After all it was her client’s brief. She turned to face into the apartment, caught her reflection in the glass. There were models that would’ve killed for her looks, her figure. She smiled. Gazed through herself at her lair. Her white lair. White couches, white flokatis, white walls. She leant against the balcony’s railing to admire the room’s pristine comfort. Here she was alone. Here no one else had ever been. Here she laid her plans.
She needed to shower, dress, pack a bag. Tonight she would give up the quiet of her lair for her town house. Replace the sea with the rawness of the city: the sirens, the harbour lights, the dark looming mountain, its arms around the scurrying streets as if one day it would crush the human insects nestled there. Tomorrow she would breakfast with the lovely Lindiwe Chocho, get some idea of the lady’s sleeping patterns. Now it was started it could not be stopped. Only thing, one other piece had to be pulled into the unravelling: a man called Mace Bishop. The man who’d smashed her hand. Who’d sent her to the punishment camps of Angola. Who’d consigned her to the rapists. The man she sent rosebuds to. The man whose photograph she kept in a plastic sleeve in her handbag.
Mace Bishop in a black Speedo, standing on the edge of a swimming pool about to plunge in. A photograph she’d taken from the other end of the pool. In the days after he’d killed the man she’d hired to kill him. Mace Bishop. She got the photograph. Slipped it from the sleeve, rubbed her rigid fingers over the surface, leaving a smear on the gloss.
Imagined shaving him. With a cutthroat razor from her collection. The collection displayed on the wall. Blades that had shaved famous men. Blades she’d paid a fortune for. Imagined Mace lying back in a Badedas bath. Coming to him, kneeling to lather his face, working the gel into a foam, spreading the foam across his bristles, under his chin, across his upper lip. Her latte hand against his white skin. Stropping the razor, bone-handled, Sheffield steel. Angling the blade down the left cheek along the jaw to the chin. Flicking off the foam. Doing the same with the right side of his face. No rasp, no hair pull, a clean shave. Carefully shaving off the moustache stubble. Then gently tilt back his head, work from the Adam’s apple into the soft crop of the underjaw. Mace Bishop lying there with his eyes closed, soft featured. Reaching a hand up to fondle her breasts.
The surprise on his face when she slit his th
With the hem of her kimono, Sheemina February cleaned the surface of the photograph. Returned it to its plastic sleeve. Put that into her handbag. There would be time for such fantasies.
An hour later she left the apartment – an elegant woman wearing a grey linen suit, sunglasses stuck in her hair, holding a briefcase in her right hand, her left hand sheathed in a black leather glove.
Spitz, outside the Meadowlands police station, put down his holdall and lit a cigarette. Stared at a police van, the cops dragging three bloodied men from the back cage. The men too drunk and messed up to complain. Some at the nearby taxi rank mocked the cops but the taunts went unheeded.
Spitz blew smoke from the corner of his mouth, tipped off the small head of ash. He glanced about for somewhere out of the sun. The pavement was barren, a wide sweep cleared round the police station. No vegetation beyond weeds threaded into the security fence at his back. Sweat started in his armpits. Little chance there would be a thunderstorm to cool down the afternoon.
He could do with a long Stella. Preferably at JB’s, Melrose Arch. Some Kal Cahoone sweetly in his ears. A waitress moving about the tables, reassuring her customers that the world was a good place.
Spitz looked at his watch. The man was five minutes late. What he didn’t like was people who weren’t punctual.
His experience, you weren’t punctual it meant you were caught, being tortured, about to be dead. He ground the cigarette butt into the dirt. Also, a man wasn’t punctual it meant no attention to detail. This sort of operation, attention to detail was important.
Spitz knew the man he waited for had been on the highway heist. A heist that people talked about. Even given it a name: the Atholl Off-Ramp Heist. That show’d needed attention to detail. Five cars, twenty men. And two more cars to block the highway, split-second timing. Open the cash van, grab the boxes, ten of them, two per car. Nine million in total. Also, the body count impressed Spitz. Three dead guards, one dead comrade. Though he’d heard two coms weren’t going to be operative again. Ever.