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Crime Beat

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Cime Beat: Extract from Divine Justice

Here’s an extract from Joanne Hichens’ solo venture into crime fiction. She’s half of the team behind Out to Score and this is the opening of Divine Justice

The Promise
The city below him is sizzling in the heat; the mountain above him is simmering, a taste of hell’s furnace…

* * *

One foot in front of the other, he hikes up Kasteelspoort. Digs the walking stick deep into the charred earth. Through his thick soles he feels the heat from the scorched surface as he steps and sinks through the cinder crust, releasing clouds of ash.

He stops to placate his aching lungs and squints at the alien sun shimmering blood-orange through the smoke, a pall that hides his view of Camps Bay and the suburbs on the Atlantic seaboard. He clutches in a searing breath, the saliva burning dry on his tongue. Sips water from his bottle and applies balm to his parched lips. He repositions the wet handkerchief over his mouth, tightens the knot of the wide-brimmed hat under his chin, and eases the rucksack on his back.

Near the summit he passes the remains of two mountain huts now burnt to the ground. Where once he smelled fragrant buchu and plucked hardy ericas and proteas, the vegetation is reduced to little more than blackened twigs. Black as death.
He exalts in the silence.
Every creature, every life form is burnt to a crisp.
Flesh of one flesh! Burnt offerings!
He chuckles.
Today there will be no wild flowers for you, Mutti.
With the veld grasses roasted to their roots, it is difficult to make out the path. It takes longer than usual for him to reach the upper cableway station, now deserted. At the view site he is alone. He positions himself, stands close to the edge, the rock face a sheer drop to the smouldering slopes below, savouring what glimpses he can of sea and city through the tendrils of spiralling smoke. The air greasy, reeking of cooked fat.

He’d asked for a sign: nothing could have directed him with more insistency than the Great Blaze, with its leaping tongues of fire, glorious shades of red and gold and orange and crimson.
Euphoric, his breath coming in ragged gasps, he stretches his arms to the heavens, accepting whatever is to come. He has seen God’s wrath with his own eyes. He has read the prophecies: The mountains will split open to release a hail of rocks and lava, and a blood red sea will rise to meet the devastation, silencing all sinners in its path! He relishes the thought, anticipates the piteous shrieks of wicked children snatched from the arms of the weeping nonbelievers.

He is shouting now, conjuring the moment, gesticulating wildly towards the matchbox city at the mountain’s foot, ships and cranes in harbour; skyscrapers, monuments, structures all as insignificant as playthings: ‘Your screams will rise over Sodom and Gomorrah!’
Tremors shake his body.
He clutches at the vial in his pocket; popping a pill under his tongue, he turns and prepares to descend.

Passing the highest point at Maclear’s Beacon, he makes his way along the back of the mountain to the ravine above Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens; here the fires have not yet reached, a remaining Eden among the ashes. At Skeleton Gorge – how aptly named – he throws back his head in triumph and laughs out loud. But the laugh sticks in his throat. A sound of ripping canvas and a sensation of soft flesh underfoot. The laugh morphs into a scream. The snake strikes as he jumps, hitting the underside of the leather boot. His heart thudding, fit to burst, he recoils in disgust at the sight of the yellow and brown chevron patterning dulled by soot, a perfect camouflage. Swallowing hard he watches in captivated terror as the puff adder, fat and slow and repulsive, retreats lethargically to find shelter in the crevice of a rock.
This is the second sign.
God will punish him, His servant, if he does not act soon.
He drops to his knees on the filthy ground: ‘The unprepared will burn and be buried under rubble. The seas will churn and rise to become one. Oh Lord! Screams will pierce the night as rolling waves crash along the shores. Liquid fingers will drag under everything within grasp, reaching out for those that remain. So be it!’

* * *

The sun is low on the horizon when he reaches the contour path. Resting his pack on a boulder, he searches for the plastic bottle. He sprays disinfectant on his grubby hands, wipes the moisture from his forehead with a clean white handkerchief…
All indeed is well.
He will be home with Mutti before dark.
‘Lord,’ he murmurs, ‘I am ready.’

Divine Justice

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