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Crime Beat

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Hardboiled Cape Town

If you thought crime fiction was smoking don’t come too close to this particular fire because it burns. And that’s not a pun on the protagonist’s name. It’s a do not cross cautionary for those of faint heart. But if you can take the heat then here’s the kitchen – aka the first chapter of Roger Smith’s Mixed Blood.

Jack Burn stood on the deck of the house high above Cape Town watching the sun drown itself in the ocean. The wind was coming up again, the southeaster that reminded Burn of the Santa Anas back home. A wind that made a furnace of the night, set nerves jangling and got the cops and emergency teams caught up in people’s bad choices.

Burn heard the growl of the car without mufflers as it came to a sliding stop. The percussive whump of bass bins bulging out gangsta rap. Not the usual soundtrack of this elite white neighborhood on the slopes of Signal Hill. The car reversed at high speed and stopped again, close by. The engine died and the rap was silenced in mid-muthahfuckah. Burn looked down at the street but he couldn’t see the car from this angle.

Susan watched him from inside the house, the glass doors open onto the deck.

“Come and eat.” She turned and disappeared into the gloom.

Burn went inside and switched on the lights. The house was clean, hard-edged and modern. Very much like the German rich-kid who had rented it to them for six months while he went home to Stuttgart to watch his father die.

Susan carried the fillet from the kitchen, moving with that backward-leaning, splay-footed waddle of the heavily pregnant. She was beautiful. Small, blonde, with a face that stubbornly refused to admit to being twenty-eight. Aside from the huge belly she looked exactly as she had seven years ago. He remembered the instant he first saw her, the feeling of the breath being squeezed from his lungs, his head dizzy with the knowledge that he was going to marry her. And he did, not six months later, laughing off the differences in their ages.

Susan looked the same but she wasn’t. Her lightness was gone, her easy laugh a memory. Lately she’d seemed to be in constant communion with her unborn child. That’s how she referred to it, as her child. Her daughter. As if Burn and Matt were another species, outside of this exclusive club of two.

Burn sliced into the fillet with a carving knife and blood pooled on the cutting board. Perfect. Rare, the way they all liked it. Matt lay on his belly in front of the plasma TV watching the Cartoon Network. Just like home.

“Hey, get over here and eat,” Burn said.

Matt was about to protest then he thought better of it and came across to the table, dressed only in a pair of baggy shorts. He was four, blond like his mother but with some early trace of his father’s frame.

Susan was seated, piling salad onto their plates. She didn’t look at Matt. “Go and wash your hands.”

“They’re not dirty,” he said as he clambered up onto a chair. He held his hands out for her to inspect. She ignored him. It wasn’t intentional, it was just as if she wasn’t tuned to his frequency any more. As if her son reminded her too much of his father.

Burn tried to get Susan’s eye, to somehow draw her back to them. But she stared down at her plate.

“Listen to your mother,” he said gently and Matt took off to the bathroom, sliding on his bare feet.

Burn was carving the fillet when the two brown men came in off the deck. They both carried guns, pointed action-movie style at right angles. From the way they were laughing he knew they were cooked on speed.

#

The night the trouble came Benny Mongrel was watching them, the American family, out on the deck of the house next door. The guy drinking wine, glimpses of the blonde woman, the kid running between the deck and the house; the sliding door open onto the hot summer night. A snapshot of a world Benny Mongrel had never known.

He had been in and out of jail since he was fourteen. He wasn’t sure but he guessed he was turning forty. That’s what his ID said, anyway. When he was paroled from Pollsmoor Prison last year after serving a sixteen-year stretch, he swore he wasn’t going back. No matter what.

So that’s why he was pulling nightshift on the building site as a watchman. The pay was a joke, but with his face and the crude prison tattoos carved into his gaunt brown body he was lucky to get a job. They gave him a rubber baton and a black uniform that was too big. And they gave him a dog. Bessie. A mongrel like him, part Rottweiler, part German Shepherd. She was old, she stank, her hips were finished and she slept most of the time but she was the only thing that Benny Mongrel had ever loved.

Benny Mongrel and Bessie were up on the top floor of the new house, the roof open to the stars, when he heard the car. It was tuned loud the way they did out on the Cape Flats. He walked to the edge of the balcony and looked down. A red early 90s BMW 3 series sped down the road toward him, way too fast. The driver hit the brakes just below where Benny Mongrel stood and the fat tires found builder’s sand and the car fish-tailed before stopping. The BMW reversed until it was level with the entrance to the building site. The wheelman cut the engine and the hip-hop died.

Everything went very quiet. Benny Mongrel could hear Bessie wheezing as she slept. He could hear the pinging of the BMW’s cooling engine. He was tense. He was aware of that old feeling he knew so well.

Benny Mongrel stood watching, invisible, as the two men got out of the car. He saw enough of them in the street light, caps on backwards, baggy clothes, the Stars and Stripes on the back of the tall man’s jacket, to recognize members of the Americans gang, the biggest on the Cape Flats.

His natural enemy.

He was ready for them. He put the baton aside and slid the knife from where it waited in his pocket. He eased the blade open. If they came up here they would see their mothers.

But they were going toward the house next door. Benny Mongrel watched as the tall one boosted his buddy up, the shorty pulling himself onto the deck like a monkey. Then he was reaching a hand down to the other guy. Benny Mongrel couldn’t see them from where he stood but he knew the American family would be eating at the table, the sliding door open to the night.

He closed the knife and slipped it back into his pocket.

Welcome to Cape Town.

#

Susan had her back to the men. She saw the look on Burn’s face and turned. She didn’t have time to scream. The one closest to her, the short one, got a hand over her mouth and a gun to her head.

“S’trues fuck, bitch, you shut up or I’ll fucken shoot you.” The hard, guttural accent. The man’s skinny arms were covered in gang tattoos.

The tall man was round the table, waving his gun at Burn.

Burn put the carving knife down and lifted his hands off the table, in plain view. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Okay, we don’t want any trouble. We’ll give you whatever you want.”

“You got that right. Where you from?” asked the man coming at Burn. He was as lanky as a basketball player.

“We’re American,” said Burn.

The short one was laughing. “So are we.”

“Ja, we all Americans here. Like a big flipping happy family, hey?” The tall man nudged Burn with the muzzle of the gun, positioning himself behind the chair to Burn’s right.

The short one pulled Susan to her feet. “Oh, we got a mommy here.”

Burn watched as the man slid his hand under Susan’s dress, grabbing at her crotch and squeezing. He saw her eyes close.

#

It was coincidence, pure and simple.

Somebody had told Faried Adams that his girlfriend Bonita was selling her ass in Sea Point when she was supposed to be visiting her mommy in hospital. Faried hadn’t minded that she was hooking again but he’d absolutely minded that she wasn’t giving him any of the money. He wanted to catch the bitch on the job.

So lanky Faried went and banged on the door of his short-ass buddy Ricardo Fortune. Rikki lived in one of those ghetto blocks in Paradise Park where washing sagged from lines strung across walkways and the stairways stank of piss. Rikki had a car. But he also had a wife, Carmen, who moaned like a pig about everything. Which is why Rikki smacked her all the time. Faried would do the same, in fact that bitch Bonita was gonna get a black eye tonight, too. If she was lucky.

Faried and Rikki took the BM to Sea Point after Faried put a couple of bucks in Rikki’s hand. They cruised up and down the hooker’s strip, slumped low in the car, bouncing to Tupac as they drove. There were a few brown girls working the street, all thick make-up and dresses that just about covered their plumbing, but no Bonita.

“I fucken had enough of this, man,” said Rikki. “ Let’s go.”

“Okay, tell you what. Drive over to Bo-Kaap. My cousin Achmat is there. We can come back later and maybe I catch Bonnie swallowing some whitey’s dick.”

Rikki was shaking his head. “I don’t want to go to Bo-Kaap, man. I rather go home.”

“We can smoke a globe. And then we come back later.”

“Achmat going to have a globe?”

“No, I got it by me.”

“Why the fuck you only tell me now?” Rikki was throwing the car into a U-turn, ignoring the minibus taxi that had to stand on its brakes.

Rikki shot up Glengariff Road, wanting to hang a left into High Level, the quickest way to Bo-Kaap. But his cell phone, a tiny Nokia he had recently stolen from a tourist at the Waterfront, blared out the opening bars of Tupac’s “Me Against The World”. Rikki fished it out of his cargo pants, saw who was calling and sent it to voice mail. Fucken Gatsby. The fat cop wanted money. Money that Rikki didn’t have no more.

Distracted, he overshot the turn and ended up on the slopes of Signal Hill.

“You missed High Level,” said Faried.

“I know. I’ll cut through.”

Rikki was speeding the car down a narrow road, fancy houses hugging the slope. Then he hit the brakes and the car skidded to a stop.

“What the fuck?” asked beanpole Faried, his head banging the roof.

Rikki was reversing back up the road. “You got your gat?”

“Your mommy wearing a panty?” Faried patted the Colt shoved in his waistband. “Why?”

Rikki stopped the car and cut the music. “Let’s go into that house.” He pointed to a house with a deck built over the garage.

Faried was staring at him. “You fucken crazy, brother?”

“Quick, in and out. Those places is full of stuff. Maybe we have some fun, too.” Rikki smiled, showing his rotten teeth. “Let’s smoke that globe and we do it.”

Faried thought for a moment, then he shrugged. “Why the fuck not?”

He took the stash of crystal meth and the unthreaded light bulb from his jacket pocket. With practised ease he fed the meth into the bulb and held it out. Rikki applied his lighter to the base and within seconds Faried was sucking up a big chesty of meth. It made a tik-tik sound in the globe, the sound that gave meth its Cape Flats name. He held the tik smoke in his lungs and passed the globe to Rikki who sucked at it. Rikki blew out a plume of smoke.

Nothing like Hitler’s drug to put you in a party mood.

#

The short man, the one with his hand under Susan’s dress, gyrated obscenely, moving his hips against her. His mouth gaped and Burn could see the blackened front teeth. Susan opened her eyes and looked straight at Burn.

The guy behind Burn laughed. “We gonna have us some nice fun tonight.”

And that was when Matt came running back into the room. The eyes of the two men were drawn to the boy who skidded to a stop, staring at them.

This gave Burn the moment he needed. As he twisted in his chair he grabbed the carving knife from the table and buried it to its haft in the tall man’s chest. Blood geysered from his ruptured heart. Burn stood, grabbed him before he fell and used his body as a shield. He felt the lanky man take the bullet fired by the short one. Then Burn shoved him away, launched himself and grabbed the short guy by his gun arm. His weight took both of them to the floor. Burn twisted the man’s arm and heard it break. The gun clattered to the tiles.

Susan backed away. Burn kneed the short guy in the balls and he curled like a worm into a fetal position. Burn looked over his shoulder. The tall one was dead, his spreading blood almost reaching Matt’s bare toes. His son was frozen, staring.

Burn reached back onto the table for a steak knife.

“Take Matt out of here,” he told Susan.

“Jack…”

“Take him out of here!”

Susan rushed across the tiles, grabbed the boy, and disappeared down the corridor toward the bedrooms.

Gripping the steak knife, Burn kneeled over the short man who was staring up at him, wide-eyed. “Mister, we wasn’t gonna do nothing…”

Burn hesitated for only a moment, then he reached down and cut the short man’s throat.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 3rd, 2009 @15:38 #
     
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    No, sorry, I can see it's brilliantly done, but I am way too much of a woes for this. Mike, don't you want to do a post one day for krimi readers who are also terminal woeses? (sp? wusses?) I feel I missing out on a lot, esp local stuff, because I am too feeble to crack a cover in case the above is what I find.

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  • <a href="http://crimebeat.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Mike Nicol</a>
    Mike Nicol
    March 4th, 2009 @07:10 #
     
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    Point taken, Helen. There is crime fiction and there is crime fiction and maybe we need to give a wuss (the spelling according to my Cassell's Dictionary of Slang - although to use the Afrikaans woes might be to create a nice cross language pun) rating. Mixed Blood is hard core stuff and drives like this from beginning to end - and you either buy into it or you don't. On the other hand I know of another crime novel currently in the printing process where no one dies yet the reader gallops through the story. Both this novel and Mixed Blood are distinguished by excellent dialogue but of a completely different kind and I will buy back your copy of this book if you don't like it. So some advance publicity for Sarah Lotz's Exhibit A. In the meantime if Crime Beat readers could comment on the usefulness of a wuss/woes rating that would be a help.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 4th, 2009 @08:53 #
     
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    Ta, Mike, I'd love a wuss/woes rating. And this gives me a chance to give Sarah's Exhibit A a plug -- have in fact been meaning to write a post about it -- it is BRILLIANT. (Heh heh editor's privilege, I got to read the proofs.) As you say, the plot sets off at a gallop and never flags, it deals with seriously hectic stuff (rape, police abuse) without ever hitting high notes on the wussometer (instead of blood, an awful lot of coffee gets splashed about), it's serious and funny and gripping, esp the courtroom scenes, and you cry at the end -- but in a good way.

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  • <a href="http://crimebeat.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Mike Nicol</a>
    Mike Nicol
    March 4th, 2009 @09:06 #
     
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    Clearly this means I won't have to buy it back from you, Helen. What would be the extremes of your wussometer?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 4th, 2009 @09:51 #
     
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    My personal wussometer: no actual blow-by-blow descriptions of child abuse, rape, animals being tortured or hurt. (In fact, no torture full stop.) Blood kept to a minimum. No grisly forensic/post-mortem scenes. But it all comes done to how the author handles it. For instance, Sarah presents the actual rape in Exhibit A deftly, in the neutral language of a police statement read by the hero. Where I draw the line is anything "retraumatising": i.e., would someone who has been raped/seen their partner raped/been victims of a brutal crime with physical violence involved/experienced child abuse be able to read this without distress? For instance (and this is subjective), Till We Can Keep An Animal is a big no; Mixed Blood a no, based on the above; Exhibit A, yes; Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, yes; Peter Harris's Fatherland, yes. So it's not the topic per se; Smilla has an abused and ultimately murdered child; Fatherland deals with the Holocaust. It's how the author treats the subject. I haven't read Margie's krimis yet, but that short story of hers posted the other day was perfect; the reader is presented with nothing beyond a sense of threat, but it was hair-raising.

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  • <a href="http://crimebeat.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Mike Nicol</a>
    Mike Nicol
    March 4th, 2009 @10:26 #
     
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    Thanks, Helen, I take your point re the 'retraumatising' although some might argue that presenting the material in this way is a form of catharsis. An argument open to debate. Re Margie's short story: although it is typical of the way she writes, her novels go a lot further and also get down to the grittier aspects of the genre. It's a wide genre with a wide range of author responses to it but if a wussometer would be useful to some readers we'll consider it. Although this raises the old judgment chestnut - in that it is going to be my call on what's beyond the pale. For instance I'm a real wuss when it comes to injections. I've watched Pulp Fiction a fair number of times but still close my eyes when the needle is plunged into Mia's heart. So any novel with a lot of needle puncture descriptions is going to send the meter soaring.

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    March 4th, 2009 @12:08 #
     
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    Mike - PLEASE can I put 'if you don't like this novel Mike Nicol will buy it back from you' on the cover as well, - then I can sell it at verimark stores. Thank you both for the plugs and support. It's incredible to receive compliments and help from people who are at the top of their game. Helen - Mike has asked me to do a list of my top ten krimis - I will keep you in mind. No Scarpettas or Hannibals (although I love them), but there will be one book featuring a gay female wrestler sleuth.
    Can we not call 'milder' crime novels 'soft-boiled?' Or is that a bit kak?

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    March 4th, 2009 @17:44 #
     
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    On violence: Hard-boiled, soft boiled, I dont like eggs, so neither work for me. Violence is hard to write - it is an experience that happens beyond language. Elaine Scarry wrote a wonderful book called the Body in Pain, looking at the centrality of violence (the crucified body of Christ for one) in western, or at least culturally christian traditions. It is hard to write through the muteness of violence, the silencing of the body - of language, the annhiliation of personality. Much writing about violence remains with violence as titillating spectacle - there is a pornographic feeling to the display of a suffering (usually) female body, or feminised male body - that makes (some of) us uncomfortable. For me, writing about violence is a way of restoring some narrative - the before, the after, to the eternal present of violence. Narrative can restore memory, and memory restores coherence, and coherence is essential for the non-psychotic. Bodily integrity and psychic, spiritual and mental coherence. So I started writing about violence - in fiction, to see if that was possible.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 4th, 2009 @19:38 #
     
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    Beautifully put, Margie. (Is is just me or is everyone writing particularly gracefully today?) I love: "Narrative can restore memory, and memory restores coherence, and coherence is essential for the non-psychotic." YES. I think this was what I was driving at in my poem "Writer's Block" --

    http://helenmoffett.book.co.za/blog/2008/11/25/a-spell-in-uganda-i/

    -- and what Mike says about catharsis is critical, too. Sometimes, just sometimes, violence in art drains the wound, so to speak. I don't think there's a woman alive who's been denigrated, harassed, exploited or abused who doesn't feel a glorious rush of catharsis when Thelma and Louise shoot up that petrol tanker:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrkX8axRMTg

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    March 4th, 2009 @20:34 #
     
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    Exactly. That is why Clare Hart can be a bit of a wonderwoman - you will have to try and read them... My bad characters come to such a shockingly deserving end that you will feel very very satisfied - it is a fantasy genre, after all. with happy endings (sort of)

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 4th, 2009 @21:38 #
     
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    Has the Jonathan Ball version of Like Clockwork come out yet? I'd like to start with that one.

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    March 5th, 2009 @07:43 #
     
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    Like Clockwork will be out in May apparently...

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