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Crime Beat

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Crime Beat: An extract from The Skin Collector by Chris Karsten.

the skin collectorHere’s an extract from the first of Chris Karsten’s Abel Lotz trilogy (originally published in Afrikaans).  On Wednesday Chris Karsten is panel-beaten under the interrogator’s hot lights.

From Southgate Mia headed for Dorado Park, a stopover en route to her destination that Sunday evening. She had made an overnight booking at a four-star hotel in Vereeniging on the Vaal River. The hotel was within easy reach of her first appointment on Monday morning. At a house on a smallholding near the Barrage she would assess an old bed made of rare mopani, the wood as dense as marble. Then she was off to Sasolburg for the late-Victorian washstand with its marble top and backsplash of Art-Nouveau tiles. After that she would follow a circular route to Koppies for the six Thonet No. 14 beechwood chairs, on to Parys for the oak sideboard with wooden mosaic inlay, and finally to Fochville for the basswood jonkmanskas. By Friday, she would be back in Johannesburg with her appraisal list so that Tom Spottiswoode could sign his approval and send the money and collection truck. She had scheduled her appointments neatly. Mia liked order in her life, though she wasn’t averse to an occasional pleasant surprise.

With her GPS and road map on the passenger seat, she had no trouble finding her way through the labyrinth of streets in the village of Dorado Park. At five to five on the quiet Sunday afternoon, she located Opal Street with its large properties and the old farm gate, hanging lopsidedly from rusty hinges. She got out of the RAV, its usually spotless white paintwork now coated with red dust, dragged open the gate, drove through, and dragged the gate shut. Beyond a stand of eucalyptus trees in the distance, she caught a glimpse of a house.

O nce past the trees, she had a better view and was mildly surprised. She had expected more from the neat Mr Lotz. The place had an appearance of gross neglect. The house was a square double storey, mock Tudor, with sash windows on either side of the front door, repeated symmetrically on the second storey. Ivy covered the flaking facade, hiding the windows, trailing riotously over the portico at the front door. The once beautiful wooden frames were bleached and parched, and weeds flourished in the muck that had collected in the gutters during years of neglect. The front garden showed vague traces of once-colourful flowerbeds, now overgrown with kikuyu, hakea and sorrel, and had become the uneven habitat of moles.

She drew up, studying the hushed, dilapidated house and yard. Suddenly she became aware of movement at her car door. She leaned towards the window and saw the dogs, silently watching her. Would Mr Lotz have heard her car approach? He was expecting her, after all. She sat waiting, shifting her gaze from the dogs back to the house, not daring to get out.

He did not open the front door to welcome her, but came shambling along from somewhere behind the house, wiping his palms on a butcher’s apron as he approached.

“Park at the back, in the shade,” he suggested with his big tongue and blushing face.

When she opened the door of the RAV on the shady side of the house, out of sight of the gravel road, she considered the dirty apron and asked, “Do you have a butchery back there?”

“You could say that.”

Gracefully she slid her slim ankles out of the car, as if bestowing a great favour on Mr Lotz’s yard. When she looked up, she noticed again the slow blinking of his lazy eye and found herself indulging a strange emotion: sympathy. Yes, she actually felt sorry for poor Mr Lotz, and she didn’t often feel compassion for anyone; in the cutthroat business of making money, and lots of it, the prerequisite was a thick skin, not a meek heart.

“Here’s the money for the tallboy – cash, as you asked.”

He held out his hand. “Moist, dry and greasy.”

“Excuse me?”

“The human skin,” he said, pushing the notes into the front pocket of his apron without counting them. “Moist, dry and greasy . . . those are the three most important ecological zones on the human skin.”

“You know a lot about skin, Mr Lotz.”

He raised his face to hers. “Have I complimented you on your beautiful skin?”

She smiled. “You have.”

But she wanted to see the promised furniture trove, not chatting about skin. She bent and wiped the dust from her sandals with a Kleenex.

“You’re an expert on wood; I know about skin.” He walked on ahead, continuing the conversation over his shoulder, “Hairy, moist armpits are just a few hands’ breadths from smooth, dry forearms. But ecologically as different as a rainforest from a desert.”

“What?” she said, shaking her head. A rainforest in my armpit? “The furniture, Mr Lotz? I still have a way to go before nightfall.”

She followed him in the direction of the shed, once again shocked by the decrepitude of his house and garden as opposed to the tidy sophistication of his antique gallery, complete with violin music in the background.

“I can see you use a good cleanser and moisturiser.”

She sighed. His evident one-track mind was still going strong. She decided to play along, to humour the pathetic little man.

“I take care of my appearance.”

“So soft and supple. Your skin.”

“Thank you for yet another compliment.”

She wondered where grim Mrs Lotz was, her wrinkly old skin undoubtedly beyond redemption.

At the shed, she suddenly felt his hand on her elbow, the cold touch of his fingers sending a shiver down her spine. He steered her past the old bakkie and car, the pile of scrap, to the door of a storeroom, where she was expecting to find the first piece of furniture for her appraisal.

Everything looked so dilapidated and rundown, but gleaming on the door was a brand-new padlock.


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