Crime Beat: Extracts from this year’s krimis: (4) Sibanda and the Deaths Head Moth by C M Elliott
Sibanda and the Deaths Head Moth by CM Elliott
He grasped the wooden stiletto and wrenched it from his thigh with one great heave, collapsing in a groaning heap. He cursed every bad word he knew in every language and dialect he could remember. When he had recovered enough to move again, he bound the wound as best he could with strips of his running shirt. It was several minutes before he levered himself up with the aid of a branch, intact despite the explosion. Using this makeshift crutch he limped along the path with some urgency until he came level with the site of the strike.
Around the stricken mopani, the grass for a wide radius was flattened and burnt, and several small fires were smouldering at the periphery. The wind that had earlier blown up was gusting and encouraging the flames to grow. Sibanda groaned. He had no option but to try and extinguish them before they flared up and became a bush fire. The tall grass was tinder dry and leaf litter lay in small hillocks, gathered by the wind. There was plenty of fuel lingering from winter to start a fire big enough to threaten Gubu village.
He hobbled around the circumference of the burn, hopping and stamping out the licking flames with his good foot until he was satisfied the site was safe. And then Sibanda’s internal radar was suddenly beeping with the frequency of a scud missile honed onto a target. He leaned heavily on his branch. The breeze that chased away the bubbling, magenta clouds had stirred up ashes and unearthed a distinctive smell hiding behind the sulphurous vapours – burning flesh, and if Sibanda wasn’t mistaken, burning human flesh. He had only smelled it once before, but it assaulted his nostrils now as it did that day in Nottingham, where he was on secondment. A little terrace had gone up aided by an accelerant, incinerating a young mother and her toddler triplets. He had been sent along with others on the first response team. The fire fighters in attendance took one look at his youth and wished him a strong stomach.
‘You’ll not see worse than this,’ one of them said, as they left the burnt-out building, rolling up hoses, tipping back visors and checking equipment in a sort of mechanical routine designed to minimise the impact of viewing burnt babies.
Sibanda had no routine or distracting behaviour to fall back on. The horror and suffering of the scene seeped into his psyche, raw and not yet numbed by experience. He hoped he would never see the like again. He returned to the station white faced.
‘If you can tolerate that, lad, then we’ll make a copper of you yet. We might even make an Englishman of you if you continue to turn pale,’ commented the grizzled duty sergeant with a chuckle.
Sibanda did not take offence. He knew none was meant. ‘I’m not sure I want to be a policeman if I’m going to be dealing with people who can do this.’ He kept his thoughts on becoming an Englishman to himself.
‘You’ll get over it. Those black, contorted crisps huddled together in a corner will fade from your memory and you’ll be the better cop for it. We see sights every day in this job, sights the general public can only guess at, depravity not yet invented, even by the tabloids. Put your disgust to good use. Get the bastard that did this.
It’s a rum old world, son, full of more deadly sins than you can shake a biblical fist at, welcome to it.’
He had taken the advice to heart, although he didn’t sleep that night for the visions that came when he closed his eyes. He had several tormented nights over the next couple of weeks, but they did catch the arsonist, the mother’s boyfriend; he had wanted the children gone. They cried and complained and kept their mother occupied when her attention should have been focused solely on him. Sibanda remembered thinking how close to animals the human species was. Lions did that, killed and ate cubs so that the mother would come into season again – lust, the deadliest of the sins in any species.
The old sergeant had been right. The tableau of twisted, charred corpses had faded, but the memory of the stench had remained. It had clung to his clothes and crawled up his nostrils with long claws like a bat finding its roost. It was unfurling its wings again now.
Sibanda hopped across the burnt ground, stirring up the black snow of carbonised grass with his makeshift crutch. He used it, balancing on one leg like a marabou stalk, to dig around in the smouldering branches and fragmented wreckage of the tree. The mopani had been in full leaf and the fallen canopy made a good fist of concealing anything beneath it. It took a while to push aside the debris, but Sibanda rummaged harder as the stink of the sizzled flesh became overpowering. It brought back long-buried images.
He unearthed an arm first. The fingers were clawed. The heat had shrivelled and contracted the tendons. A few fingers were missing and some flesh torn from the bones. Squatting on his one good leg, he gently lowered himself into a sitting position. The pulse was gone. He hadn’t expected one. No one could have survived lightning at the heart of the strike.
What reviewers have had to say:
CM Elliott has created a lively cast of characters and an intricate, clever plot that is kicked off when a party of tourists on a game drive stumble across a kill with a difference: a human corpse being pecked about by vultures.” – Margaret von Klemperer, The Witness
“The murder mystery is well plotted, but it is the rich imagery and metaphor that make this first novel remarkable… Indefatigable, Sibanda straddles the divide, with perspiring Ncube stumbling in his wake. I sincerely hope we will meet them both again.” – Jenny de Klerk, Saturday Star