Authors: Malla Nunn
Tags: #Australia, #South Africa
A remote town. A girl of rare and exquisite beauty. A murder that silences a whole community.
The body of a seventeen-year-old girl has been found covered in wildflowers on a hillside in the Drakensberg Mountains, near Durban. She is the daughter of a Zulu chief, destined to fetch a high bride price. Was Amahle as innocent as her family claims, or is her murder a sign that she lived a secret life?
Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. He must enter the guarded worlds of a traditional Zulu clan and a white farming community to gather up the clues Amahle left behind and bring her murderer to justice. But the silence in the valley is deafening, and it seems that everyone – from the uncooperative local police officer, to the white farm boy who seems obsessed with the dead girl – has something to hide.
With no cause of death and no motive, Cooper’s investigation is blocked at each turn. Can he tough it out, or will the small-town politics that stir up his feelings about the past be more than he can bear?
In this page-turning tale of murder and mystery, Nunn entangles us in a rich and complex web of witchcraft, tribalism, taboo relationships . . . and plain old-fashioned greed.
etective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper woke to the sound of boots kicking in his bedroom door. He threw the sheets aside and fumbled in the nightstand for his gun. Motionless in the darkness, Webley revolver pointed at the doorway, he listened for whatever would come next. The sound diminished and became more organic. He felt its rhythm. It was not splintering wood that had wrenched him out of sleep. It was his own heart. It slammed against his chest like a prisoner trying to escape its cage of muscle and bone.
He sat back, breathed deeply and detected the faint trace of a flowering jasmine. Three months after officially rejoining the detective branch the dreams were back, and now they were more intense than anything he had experienced before.
The familiar vision of his platoon huddled under a pewter sky howling with missiles had been replaced by disjointed images of red flames and black smoke. In these new dreams, he ran through burning debris towards something he could not remember. Hot cinders rained down. The dark earth smell of blood and the hollow calls of the dying filled the void. He knew the direction he should run but flames blocked his path. The smoke became thicker and it seared his lungs.
He climbed out of bed and crossed the linoleum floor to the open window. A cat stalked an unseen night animal across the empty driveway and slipped into a tangled bougainvillea fat with spring blooms.
‘Emmanuel,’ a sleepy voice said, ‘come back to bed.’
He glanced at the woman lit by a shaft of streetlight coming in through the curtains. Lana Rose lay naked on the bed, cotton sheets kicked off in the heat, black hair like a ribbon of silk on the pillow.
‘Shhh . . .’ The sound he made was automatic. ‘I’ll just be a minute.’
The cat reappeared with a lizard in its mouth, the lizard’s tail twitching.
‘Still crazy?’ Lana said and snuggled into the pillow and back to sleep.
Emmanuel said, ‘Last I checked.’
Proof of his craziness was in his bed. Lana was Colonel van Niekerk’s girlfriend but by week’s end the colonel would be married and Lana bound for a new life on her own in Cape Town. That didn’t make this night of pure pleasure okay. For a few days longer she was still his boss’s mistress and should have been untouchable. Months earlier, she had invited him to her apartment and they had fallen into bed and drowned themselves in each other. The next morning, though, Lana had gone back to van Niekerk and his deep pockets. Afterwards, they avoided each other and ignored the memory of how perfectly they fitted together. When she had called to suggest farewell drinks, Emmanuel knew they’d make their final goodbye in bed. With her body half wrapped in his sheets, Emmanuel permitted himself the illusion that he was not alone. But at dawn tomorrow, Lana would disappear from his life: one more woman he’d failed to hang on to. Wide awake now, he remembered some advice his mother had given him years before.
from trouble instead of right to it. Just once, Emmanuel,’ she’d said after discovering the stolen cigarettes hidden under his bed in their shack in Sophiatown. He was twelve years old and already possessed the terrible knowledge that he would never grow into the good, kind man she dreamed he would become.
The telephone rang on the bedside table and Emmanuel quickly crossed the room. He lifted the receiver to his ear. ‘
,’ he said quietly, to avoid waking Lana.
‘You’re up.’ Colonel van Niekerk’s voice was clear on the line. ‘Problem sleeping, Cooper?’
‘I sleep very well, thank you, Colonel,’ Emmanuel said. He had no intention of letting the Afrikaner policeman into his head. The less van Niekerk knew about his mental health, the better. Lana rolled onto her back and the bedsprings sighed.
‘You have company,’ the colonel said.
Emmanuel ignored the statement and pressed a finger softly against Lana’s mouth. ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ he asked.
There was a pause on the other end, short enough to suggest a gathering of thoughts but long enough for Emmanuel to imagine that the colonel knew just how he’d spent the night and with whom.
‘Pack a bag,’ van Niekerk said. ‘Enough for a few days. I have a case for you. A murder.’
Emmanuel lifted his hand from Lana’s mouth and wrote the details of the job in his notebook. A homicide in Roselet, a farming hamlet nestled in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and four hours out of Durban. Whoever had called it in had left no details of the victim.
‘I’ll leave early in the morning, Colonel,’ he said and hung up. Dirt roads with potholes deep enough to bathe a child in and wandering goats and cows made the journey to the ’Berg dangerous in the dark. He’d wait for first light to set off.
He checked the bedside clock. Three forty-five a.m. on Sunday morning. The colonel knew he couldn’t leave for hours so why had he called in the middle of the night? Van Niekerk didn’t do anything without a reason. What was the reason this time?
‘Emmanuel . . .’ Lana stretched out against the crumpled sheets with her arms thrown above her head. ‘Do you have to leave right away?’
‘No.’ He leaned over and pinned her wrists against the mattress, felt the heat of her skin and the lazy drumming of her heart. ‘Not right away.’
Zulu herd boy walked quickly up the dirt path, his bony frame bent to meet the steep rise of the mountain. The rhythmic pounding of his bare feet on the rough ground kicked stones loose and raised red dust into the air.
.’ The boy was apologetic, afraid of taxing the white policeman in the neat blue suit and the black hat pulled low on his head to block out the light. ‘We must go higher.’
‘I’m right behind you,’ Emmanuel said. ‘Keep going.’
The steady pace was nothing compared to army boot camp or the three years spent in combat, marching between battlefields in Europe during the war. Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala from the native detective branch followed directly behind him and the rhythm of his breath spurred Emmanuel to keep moving.
,’ the boy promised. ‘Soon.’
‘I’m still with you,’ Emmanuel said. The dead were patient. To them, eternity was flexible and time meant nothing. For police detectives, however, time was everything. The sooner the crime scene was located and a crime scene sketch made with every detail included, the better chance there was of catching the killer.
The herd boy stopped abruptly and then slipped into the lush grass along the edge of the path. ‘There,
.’ He pointed a skinny finger to the rise. The path snaked behind a sandstone boulder embedded in the grass. ‘You must go past the rock and up again.’ The boy clearly wanted no part of what lay beyond.
‘My thanks,’ Emmanuel said and turned to look behind him. He saw the path they had travelled from the floor of the Kamberg Valley and the mountains rising in the distance on the other side. Clouds piled on top of each other behind the peaks. The bronze tops of the mountains, some of them dusted with snow, looked like fortresses for gods. There was nothing like the Drakensberg Mountains anywhere else on Earth.
‘Where to, Sergeant?’ Shabalala asked when he drew level.
‘Around that bend,’ Emmanuel said. ‘Our guide has dropped out.’
They moved on, slowly skirting the boulder. Three Zulu men dressed in traditional cowhides worn over printed cloth stood shoulder to shoulder across the narrow path to form a roadblock. They held hardwood clubs and
, hunting spears with rawhide bindings and sharp blades. Together they made an
, a fighting unit. The tallest of the men stood in the centre.
‘Suggestions?’ Emmanuel asked Shabalala.
The Zulu men gave no indication that they might move from the middle of the path. Military defeat at the hands of the British army and Boer commandos had not cowed them. They stood, as their ancestors must have a hundred years ago, fearless masters of their own land.
‘Should we wait for the local police?’ Shabalala asked. Far below and across the emerald stretch of the valley lay the town of Roselet, the closest source of law enforcement backup.
‘The station commander might not get the message for hours,’ Emmanuel said, referring to the handwritten note he’d stuck to the door of the locked police station an hour ago. A small sandstone bungalow adjacent to the station had also been empty. ‘I don’t want to lose any more time.’
‘Then we must go together, Sergeant. Slowly. Hands open, like this.’ Shabalala lifted both hands and showed empty palms to the Zulu men. The gesture was simple, universal. It said, ‘No weapons. No harm intended.’ Emmanuel did the same.
‘Now we must wait,’ Shabalala said. ‘Do not look away from them, Sergeant.’
Sunshine glinted off the fighters’ sharpened spearheads. The weapons were not dusty antiques from Grandfather’s hut. The men themselves were no relics either. They were tall and muscular. Emmanuel figured a lifetime of running up these mountains and hunting game had kept them lethal.
‘Never crossed my mind,’ he said.
‘Who are you?’ the man in the middle demanded in Zulu. He was the eldest of the three.
. I am Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala from the native detective branch. This is Detective Sergeant Cooper, the boss of detectives in Durban.’
.’ Emmanuel made the traditional greeting. He let the instant promotion to top boss pass; if Shabalala thought they needed extra status to move ahead, they probably did.
‘Cooper. Shabalala. We see you.’ The elder nodded a greeting but did not smile. ‘Come. The firstborn child of my father’s sister is waiting.’
Emmanuel didn’t try to work out the connection. Zulus did not have family trees, they had family webs. The men turned and jogged up the slope in formation, weapons held in relaxed hands that were used to the weight.
‘You lead,’ Emmanuel said to Shabalala. The Zulu detective wore the standard detective branch uniform – a suit with polished leather shoes and a black fedora – but the hills and untamed veldt had been his childhood playground. He knew this land and its people.
They pushed up the steep gradient for two more minutes. An eerie low-pitched moaning swelled and rolled over the treetops before dropping away again in a wave.
‘What’s that?’ Emmanuel asked but didn’t slacken his pace.
‘The women.’ The words were spare, stripped down but full of sorrow just the same. Shabalala had heard the sound before.
The Zulus stopped and pointed their
to a rock fig growing out almost horizontally from a craggy ledge. The sound was distinct now: female voices crying out and wailing in the bushes.
‘They are waiting,’ the elder Zulu said.
Emmanuel again let Shabalala take the lead. The tall grass and bush thinned out a few yards off the path and a group of women became visible. They sat in a circle, swaying back and forth. The rock fig branched over them like a sentinel. Emmanuel hesitated. One step closer and the sorrow would engulf him and drag him back to a time and place in his own life he’d rather forget.
‘Sergeant,’ Shabalala prompted softly and Emmanuel walked on. He’d chosen this life among the wounded and the dead. Dealing with the living was a necessary part of the job.
‘She is here,
.’ One of the women shuffled to the side to make a gap in the circle through which Emmanuel could approach the body. A black girl lay on the sweet spring grass, gazing up at the soft blue sky and the shapes of darting birds in the air. Her head rested on a rolled-up tartan blanket and tiny red and yellow wildflowers were scattered over the ground. Three or four flowers had fallen into her mouth, which was slightly open.
‘We need to get closer,’ Emmanuel said to Shabalala and the Zulu detective relayed the request in a low voice. The women broke the circle but gathered again under the branches of a paperbark thorn tree nearby. Their wails subsided and were replaced by the muted sound of swallowed tears.
. . .’ Shabalala whispered when they were crouched either side of the girl. This was not the messy knifing or domestic argument gone too far they’d been expecting when Colonel van Niekerk tapped them on the shoulder for this case.
‘Yeah, I know.’ Emmanuel examined the victim. She was young, maybe seventeen years old, and beautiful. High cheekbones, gracefully arched brows and full lips were features that would have kept into old age. No more. All that was left was a glimpse of what might have been. ‘No signs of a struggle,’ he said. The girl’s fingernails were neatly shaped and unbroken. The skin on her wrists, neck and upper arms was unmarked. ‘If her eyes were closed, I’d say she was sleeping.’
‘Yes,’ Shabalala agreed. ‘But she did not walk here. Someone brought her to this place. Look at her feet, Sergeant.’
Emmanuel bent lower to get a better view. Dirt and broken grass stalks were stuck to the rough-skinned heels and slim ankles. ‘She was dragged here and then laid down.’
‘I think so,’ Shabalala said.
Under normal circumstances, with a wooden barricade in place and a few uniformed police on guard, Emmanuel would have pushed aside the neckline of the girl’s dress and checked for bruising on the shoulders and under the armpits. Modesty was never a concern of the dead. The presence of the gathered Zulu women stayed his hand and he pulled a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket.
To Shabalala he said, ‘She wasn’t dumped or hidden under branches.’ He wrote the letters ‘R.I.P.’ on the first page. Rest in peace. Whoever had dragged the victim to this spot had wanted her to rest in a peaceful place with a rock fig above and a wide valley below.
‘And the flowers.’ Shabalala stood up and surveyed the hillside. Clumps of bright red and yellow broke the stretch of green. ‘They are growing all around but I do not think the wind blew them to this place.’
‘It looks like they were deliberately scattered over her,’ Emmanuel said, picking up a tiny red bloom from the crook of the girl’s elbow. He understood this need to mark the fallen. Small gestures made the difference even in the white heat of war: a helmet placed on the chest or a poncho thrown over the face of a dead soldier, the closest thing available to a eulogy or a farewell.
Emmanuel scribbled ‘loved’ on the next clean page. First time that word had come up at a crime scene. There was no doubt the girl had been loved and was loved still. Even now, in death, a circle of grieving women and a group of armed men guarded her.
‘How long do you think she’s been here?’ he asked Shabalala. It couldn’t have been more than twelve hours, he imagined. The vultures and wild cats hadn’t begun to disassemble her body.
‘One day and a half.’ Shabalala walked the perimeter of the crime scene, examining snapped twigs and flattened grass. ‘The women’s tracks are from this morning but the deep lines from the girl’s heels are from before.’
Emmanuel stood up and moved to where Shabalala was bent over a crushed leaf. ‘You sure she’s been out in the open all that time?’
‘Yes. It is so.’
‘But she’s nearly perfect.’ He glanced at the girl. Her slender legs were shoulder-width apart, the left knee slightly crooked as if she might sit up at any moment and wave hello. The hem of her white calico dress fluttered against her upper thighs – whether blown by the wind or hitched up by a human hand, it was impossible to tell. A pea-sized mark marred the smooth surface of her left inner thigh. ‘No animals have disturbed the body. And there are no signs of injury besides that bruise.’
‘I see this also,’ Shabalala said and paused, reluctant to continue. Other detectives burned oxygen throwing out half-formed theories and detailed explanations of the how and the why of a murder, but not Shabalala. He did not speak unless he was sure of the facts. It was a learned caution: black policemen rarely added spontaneous comments or joined in the competitive banter that buzzed around a dead body. They were junior partners, usually brought onto a case only if special knowledge of ‘native situations’ was needed.
‘Tell me,’ Emmanuel said. ‘It doesn’t have to make sense.’ Bullshit theories spun out of thin air had their uses.
‘What I see is strange,’ Shabalala said.
‘Tell me anyway.’
The Zulu policeman pointed to scuff marks in the dirt and to a heavy stick lying on the grass. ‘I think that the animals did not come near because the one who brought the girl to this place kept them away.’
‘You have to explain,’ Emmanuel said. The indentations in the dirt meant nothing to him and the stick was clean of blood or other signs of use.
‘A man . . .’ The Zulu detective hesitated and moved to the right to examine another patch of disturbed earth. ‘A small man was here. He ran from where the girl is lying to here with the stick. See this, Sergeant?’
The spoor of a wild cat was identifiable even to Emmanuel’s untrained eye. ‘He moved out to defend the body from predators. That means he must have stayed with her.’
. I believe this.’
Emmanuel underlined the word ‘loved’ and then added ‘protected’.
‘Was he a human predator and the girl his prey?’ he wondered aloud. People often killed the one they loved the most.
Shabalala shook his head, frustrated at not having the full picture. ‘I cannot say if this man was the one to harm her. People have come to this place and walked all around. Some of the women scooped the earth with their hands and threw their bodies in the dirt. Many tracks have been lost. A man brought her here and kept the animals away. That is all I see.’
‘We know a lot more than when we got here,’ Emmanuel said. ‘Let’s take another look at the body and then we’ll talk to the women, see what they can tell us about the victim.’
,’ Shabalala agreed and they walked back to where the girl lay. A yellow grasshopper had landed on the curve of her neck and was busy cleaning its wings and long antennae.
‘No visible injuries,’ Emmanuel said and waved the grasshopper away. Natural causes couldn’t be ruled out yet. ‘We’ll have to turn her over, find what’s hidden.’
They rolled the body onto its side so the back was visible. A soft gasp came from the women under the paperbark thorn. The girl was theirs and still alive in their minds. To see how easily she slipped from their embrace and into the hands of strangers shocked them.
‘There,’ Emmanuel said. A small hole, the size of a thumbtack head, punctured the white calico dress just above the waist. Spots of blood speckled the fabric. ‘Could be a bullet entry wound.’
‘Maybe a knife also.’ Shabalala pressed his fingertips into the ground where the girl had been lying and checked them. ‘The soil and grass are damp with blood but not soaked.’
‘She didn’t bleed to death. But this isn’t a good time to look at the entry wound.’ The mourners had edged closer to the crime scene and their anxiety was palpable. ‘The district surgeon will have answers for us in a few days. Till then we can only guess at the murder weapon. Lay her on her back and let’s find out who she is.’
They rolled the girl’s body into its original position and Shabalala pushed the tartan blanket under her head again as if she might be uncomfortable without the support.
‘Do you want to take the questioning?’ Emmanuel asked. He spoke Zulu himself, had mixed with Zulu boys and girls and been in and out of their homes till the violent events of his adolescence had seen him and his sister banished to a remote farm and then to an all-white boarding school. But this situation was different.