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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: A short story by Roger Smith

It’s time to kick back for the end-of-year out-of-it season. So we’re into short stories through the summer days of high wind and heat, starting off with a story by Roger Smith called ‘Ishmael Toffee’, and used here with thanks to The Big Issue. If you want a hard copy of this and you’re in Cape Town please buy the December/January edition of The Big Issue. Among the stories planned for the fiction bonanza are a longer fiction by Deji Olukotun and an unpublished story by James McClure.

Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith

Killing always came easy to Ishmael Toffee. From when he was old enough to hold a knife he stuck people dead. Killing sent him to prison and kept him there. When you good at killing you don’t get no rest. Then one day he just didn’t want to do it no more. Walked up to an enemy in the yard, ready to stick him, man seeing him, piss turning the front of his orange overall dark. Ishmael just dropped the blade and turned and walked away.

Word got around and Ishmael knew they were gonna come for him. An assassin don’t get no retirement. You get dead.

Got his ass saved by the warden, brown man like him – a reborn – who tried to tell Ishmael he’d found God. Ishmael hadn’t found him no god. Hadn’t found him nothing. Lost something, is what. Lost his taste for blood, plain and simple.

The warden moved Ishmael into a single cell. Gave him a TV and a budgie in a cage. Ishmael would let the budgie out to walk on his shoulders and his head. Shat on him sometimes. He didn’t mind.

Warden told him to go work in the garden that stretched down to the fence of Pollsmoor. Plants and fruit trees. Ishmael couldn’t wait to get out there everyday, stick his hands in the ground. Plant things and watch them grow. First time in years he saw kids. They played beyond the high electric fences and razor wire that separated the gardens from the guards’ compound. He could hear their voices and little snatches of songs came over the wire at him. He liked it.

Next few years Ishmael Toffee was a happy man. Then the Warden told him they gonna give him parole. Didn’t want no parole. But his budgie died and there he was out in the street after twenty years. Got him a shack near Paradise Park and got him this job, few days back.

Sweating now, as he pulls out weeds. The garden of this Constantia house spreads across what must be two acres of land. Not far from Pollsmoor, the barbed wire and guard towers a bad memory somewhere across the trees and the vineyards.

“Hey! Hey you! Lunch.”

He looks up and sees the coloured battle-axe waving at him from the kitchen door. He pulls on his shirt over his prison ink and walks up to the house, short-ass of a man, never getting bigger than a jockey. The woman has left him lunch on a chipped plate lying on the gravel next to a dog’s water bowl. Hasn’t seen no dog. Doesn’t like dogs.

As he takes the food, he looks up and sees the blonde kid peeping at him from one of the upstairs windows of the big house. She ducks away when he catches her eye. Ishmael sits under a tree and eats. He rinses the plate and spoon and leaves them by the back door. Strips off his shirt and goes back to work.

“What are those drawings on you?”

The girl, maybe five years old, stands watching him, way kids do. Not scared to stare.

“They like comics, missy.”

“My names not, missy. My names Cindy.”

She sits down beside him with some picture books, opens one of them. Drawings of nice white people and little blonde kids. She points to the words coming out the people’s mouths. “This word – I don’t know it.” Looking up at him. “Read it to me.”

“Ask the lady by the house.”

“She’s too busy. She chased me away.” Staring at him with those eyes the colour of the water in the shiny swimming pool.

“I can’t read, missy.”

“You lie. Everybody can read.”

He shakes his head. “Not me, I can’t.”

Her eyes unblinking on him. “Didn’t your mommy and daddy teach you?”

“I never had no mommy and daddy.”

She stares at him. “Have they gone to heaven?”

He has to laugh. “Ja, someplace like that.”

Something crosses her face like a shadow and she nods. “My mommy has gone to heaven, too.”

He can find no words to offer. The sun shines through the trees, hitting her one leg, and he sees the marks on her skin – right up on her inner thigh, near her privates. Bruises. Like somebody grabbed her there. A grown-up. Ishmael is about say something. Stops himself.

“Hey! Hey!” The battle-axe again, standing like a teapot in the kitchen doorway. “You don’t get paid to sit on your backside. And Cindy, you come in now, hear? Come!”

The child closes the books and walks away with them, looking back at him a couple of times. Later the white man drives up in his big car, walks across to Ishmael and gives him a hundred rand note. Tells him to come back tomorrow and every day next week. Ishmael nods, folds the note up into his pocket.

He washes at the tap and pulls on his shirt, goes to where his bag lies under the tree. A book leans up against the bag. It has smiling kids on the cover. He dries his hands on his jeans and opens the book. Sees a picture of an apple with some writing next to it. Then a picture of a ball, more writing. This is a learning book, he knows. A learning book on how to read.

He looks around for the kid, but can’t see her. He is scared to take this book. Next thing they tell him he’s stealing and they throw him back in Pollsmoor – no single cell – in with the killers who’ll want his blood.


What the fuck, he puts the book in his bag and he walks down the long driveway.

Ishmael sits in his shack, on the sand floor, watching the candle flicker and dance from the wind that finds its way like a pickpocket through the holes in the tin walls. He opens his bag and takes out the book the white girly give him. Wipes his hands nice and clean on his jeans before he opens it. The book, with its bright pictures and happy smiling faces, is like a piece of a happier world.

He flips through the pages and comes on a little card, yellow with flowers stuck in the pages. He sees a drawing on the front of the card and looks closer. Two stick people, one bigger, one smaller. Bigger one holding a garden rake.

Left this for him, the kid did. He turns the card over and sees writing. He can’t read it, ’course not, but somehow he knows its trouble, written on there. And he wants none of that. Long as he don’t know what it says he’s safe. Folds the card and drops it on the floor.

To calm him down he goes outside for a smoke. Dark now and the wind has died, sudden. Can’t stop thinking of that card and those bruises like fingerprints on the child’s leg. Reminds him of the stuff they done to him, long ago. Stuff made him angry enough to use a blade.

A woman comes on. Lives with her baby in the shack opposite. Woman doesn’t look at him, gets busy unlocking her door. Ishmael can’t stop himself, he goes back inside his place and gets the little card off the floor, all the time going, no, fuck it, Ishmael, don’t do this. But he walks across to the woman, who is inside now and when she sees him coming she’s closing her door, fast.

Ishmael sticks a foot in the door and she stares at him big eyed through the gap. He holds up the card. “What does it say?” She just looks at him. “I seen you reading the paper,” he says.

She steps back into the light of a paraffin lamp. Looks at the card. Looks back up at him. “My Daddy hurts me. ” Staring at him now. “That’s what it says.”

Cindy is dreaming of Mommy when Daddy opens the bedroom door and wakes her. She plays that she’s sleeping but that won’t fool Daddy. He comes over to her bed and leans over her and says, “Cindy. Cindy.”

She smells something on him like horrible medicine as he lifts her from the bed and carries her down the corridor and takes her to the room where him and Mommy used to sleep.

Daddy puts Cindy on the stool of Mommy’s vanity table, the one with pretty curly pink legs and little gold handles like flowers. Daddy opens a round tin of powder and Cindy smells Mommy and wants to cry. He rubs the powder on Cindy’s face and the powder gets up her nose and she wants to sneeze.

Daddy twists a lipstick until it pops out all red and horrible, like a dog’s thing, and he brings it to her lips. She turns away and shakes her head, hiding her chin in her pyjama top.

“Come on, Cindy, don’t make Daddy cross,” he says. “Daddy needs you to be a big girl for him.” Cindy lifts her chin. “Make a kissy mouth.”

She does what he says and feels her top lip tickle her nose. But it doesn’t make her want to laugh. Daddy puts the red lipstick on her, all smeary like a wax crayon. His hand is shaky and he goes over the edges and onto her face skin and when she looks at herself in the mirror she looks so horrible it makes her scared.

Daddy lifts her and carries her to the bed and pulls down her pyjamas and she can hear his breath like a kettle and feel his scratchy face and she makes herself very tiny and goes far, far, away.

Ishmael’s avoiding the child. Down here in a part of the garden he’s never been before, far from the house. Swinging a curved blade in easy arcs, slicing at the weeds. Comes on a wall of thick, green bush, pushes his way in, and by the time he hears the child crying it’s too bloody late to turn back.

She lies there, blonde and pink against the green, curled up like a silkworm. Lifts her face and says, “Go away! This my special place!”

Last chance, Ishmael, to get your stupid brown ass out of this trouble. But he says, “Your daddy, what he do to you, missy?”

She looks down at the grass and when she looks back up at him she is a child still, but is also something else. Her eyes fill and tears run down her face. She shakes her head and says nothing, just reaches out for his hand and wraps all her small fingers round his thumb and holds it tight like she’ll never let it go. Just sits there and cries, tears dropping onto the green lawn like broken glass.

Cindy lies in bed, holds the teddy Mommy gave her before she went to heaven. She’s getting sleepier and sleepier when the door makes a creak and the light touches her face like a finger.

“Cindy? Cindy?” says Daddy, big and dark in the doorway.

She squeezes her eyes tight shut and buries her face in teddy’s furry belly, but Daddy is in the room, his shoes saying dirty whispers on the carpet.

Ishmael drops his bag behind a tree, where the battle-axe can’t see it. No sign of the child. He crosses to a flowerbed and starts pulling out weeds, keeping his eye on the kitchen door. After a while, out she comes, the kid.

Ishmael stands, catches a quick look over at the house. No sign of the kitchen bitch. “Missy, go put your shoes on,” he says.

“Why? It’s hot.”

“We going somewhere, you and me.”


“Just you go put on your shoes. And you don’t say nothing to her, hear me?”

She stares up at him, nods and runs off toward the kitchen.

Ishmael goes to his bag, finds the last half of a cigarette and squats down and lights it, sucking smoke, trying to calm himself down.

What’s your plan, Ishmael? Nothing. No plan. You mad. Fucken out of your head.

He sees the walls and wire of Pollsmoor. Hears the shouting and the moaning of the men. Smells the stink of their rotting bodies.


Ishmael nips the smoke and puts it behind his ear. Stands and slings his bag over his shoulder. Uses the bushes for cover as he hurries his ass toward the road, his shoes crunching on the stones.

Big gates ahead of him now. And like magic – nearly crapped himself the first time it happened – the gates automatically open away from him like bird’s wings, showing him the leafy street and freedom. He takes a deep breath and walks out into his future, far from all this wrong-headed bullshit.


Don’t stop, he tells himself. Just walk on.

“Ishmael!” Hears the small feet on the stones and feels fingers gripping at his hand. “Here I am, Ishmael.”

And what is Ishmael Toffee to do but kneel down and take the boy kid’s clothes – him late ’cause he went and stole them by a Muslim shop on Voortrekker Road – from the bag, and dress her? He hides the blonde hair under a cap and hurries her down to the main road, jumping a taxi just as the co-driver slams the door shut like a prison cell.


Roger Smith is the author of Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mack</a>
    December 14th, 2010 @17:09 #

    An excellent story of redemption. I like that we are left to imagine how it turns out for Ishmael and Cindy. Roger is great at interesting similes and the comparison of lipstick to a "dog's thing" is graphic and a little disturbing considering how often we see people applying lipstick. My wife might wonder why I avert my eyes. Roger, you won't mind dashing off some more short stories between novels will you?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">rogersmith</a>
    December 15th, 2010 @04:01 #

    Thanks, Mack. Make-up scares me, full stop. I have another short story (featuring Disaster Zondi of MIXED BLOOD and my upcoming third book DUST DEVILS) in a print anthology that Keith Rawson (Crimefactory) is putting out early next year.


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