Coldsleep Lullaby by Andrew Brown is a literary thriller where the daughter of a prominent South African citizen is found floating in a river, and Detective Eberard Februarie is tasked with uncovering her secrets and solving the case (available June 17, 2014).
In the sleepy Cape Winelands of South Africa the body of a young woman is found drifting in a river, and Detective Eberard Februarie is called in to investigate the case. It doesn’t help matters that the young woman—Melanie Du Preez—was the daughter of a prominent local citizen. Professor du Preez is a lecturer in the University’s Faculty of Law, and a conservative activist in the defense of the Afrikaans culture. Has a murder happened here, and if so, is the motive politics or something much more personal?
Eberard discovers a scrapbook of lullabies that Melanie had collected over the years, it's a clue that could unlock the case for him, if only he could figure out what he’s looking for? A man struggling with his own demons, Eberard discovers even more secrets that lead him to the rotten core of this old university town.
SHE drifted in the water’s slow current, her toes caressed by the grasses and blanket-weed lining the muddy bank. Although it was early morning, the water was warm. The February sun was bright, already scorching the thin clouds that passed beneath it. None of the pleasant moisture of dawn filled the air; instead the prickly dryness of summer breathed down the valleys and over the thatched roofs of the farmhouses. Drops of water on the vines, sprayed finely from automatic sprinklers before sunrise, had already been absorbed by the breeze, leaving only a dusting of sulphur patterned across the leaves. The gravel strips in front of the labourers’ cottages were baked hard. In the distance, tarred roads shimmered in the strengthening heat, the mirage broken now and then by the first trucks leaving Stellenbosch for Cape Town. The early morning whirr of Christmas beetles and cicadas had stilled. Doves cooed quietly on the telephone lines, the singing birds buried deep in the thorny shade of the berry bushes.
Three centuries earlier, the newly appointed Governor at the Cape had set out in such heat, perhaps less intense then – being November – but as overwhelming to the foreigner. He had brought his horses to the same water to drink, cool and brackish. This was the first river beyond the tiny colony; he and his companions had stopped on its banks and taken long draws of water, gratefully naming it the Eerste River. The river had witnessed the passing of history. For centuries, it had replenished ostrich eggs used by the San for storing water; it had quenched the thirst of the new colony’s leaders and their horses; it had watered the first vines; witnessed the growth of the small settlement. And it had decided the fate of the town’s inhabitants – the Dutch and English masters and their slaves, thrown together from across the world. The river had felt their dreams, their desperate hopes, cast like twigs into its course, flowing away from the town and into the sea.
Now the Eerste River pushed lazily along its bunkered course, grasses and boulders strewn across its path, sometimes blocking its way. Alien trees – pines, eucalyptus and plains – lined both sides, their roots snaking into the water. The grey crags of the Simonsberg, Jonkershoek and Pieke ranges gazed down onto the valley, holding it in a tight embrace and steering the river cautiously along at their feet. The town, ‘Van der Stel se Bosch’, nestled among the lower hills and slopes, protected and seemingly serene.
Now the main streets of the university town were traversed by young women with red cheeks and loose cotton dresses, and young men with goatee beards and sandals – men too big for their boyish bodies, pushing bicycles – making their way to the first classes of the day. All displayed a lack of haste, the lazy ease of students. Some paused beneath the shade of elderly oak trees – the foreigner’s blighted gift to the Eikestad – stubbing a cigarette into the run-off whitewash collected at the bottom of garden walls, or rearranging a rucksack, before setting off through the early morning glare.
Oak trees dominated the centre of the town, their asymmetrical trunks bulging and narrowing along their lengths. Thick boughs emerged unexpectedly, branching at irregular intervals, heavy and with little foliage. The older trees sported protrusions at their bases, giving them the surreal appearance of having melted into the pavement. Some had massive hollows at their centres, where the wood had been gnawed by grey squirrels and beetles, or rotted away, leaving ledges of white and orange fungus. The patterned symmetry of the occasional cypress or pine only emphasised the confident majesty of the oaks.
Leiwater trickled alongside the paths, running under rounded pedestrian bridges and disappearing into drains, in places flanked by ornate whitewashed walls. The water oozed from beneath tarred roads over beds of moss and bright green algae. Fallen oak leaves, curled and browned by the sun like shrivelled dead chameleons, lined the sides of the deep channels, providing a moist cover for small black river crabs, shiny millipedes and isopods. Cellophane crisp packets and crushed cigarette boxes poked out from the beds of leaves, glinting in the sun. The smell of guavas mixed with the exhaust fumes of tour buses and taxis.
She floated, oblivious to the growing heat. The strong light illuminated the brackish water around her, the rays piercing deeply into the orange-brown hue. A platanna swam hurriedly past her, kicking its webbed feet backwards like a speed skater with its arms held out in front. She drifted face down in the water. Thin tentacles of hair framed her scalp, hovering like a jellyfish over the dragonfly larvae moving about on the murky surface of the mud below. Her breasts, pale in contrast to the darkened colours surrounding her, moved almost imperceptibly with the slight current, her nipples smoothed against the areola in the tepid water.
A glossy hadeda watched, waiting for her to pass by. Red and blue iridescence shimmered across its wings in the sunlight. The platanna buried into the mud next to a beer bottle. The green glass was coated with slime, the label eaten away by small black freshwater snails and the rasping mouths of tadpoles. She had collected these tadpoles when she was a little girl; she had caught them in the same canal, only further down where the water poured over the weir and swirled in deeper eddies before continuing on to the farmlands. She had picked them off the shallow rocks on the side, where they lay recovering from the shock of being sucked over the stony platform. She had taken them home in jam jars and poured them into a small square aquarium.
There, the water had soon turned murky and filled her bedroom with a putrid smell. She’d leave it unchanged until it was thick with algae, producing stale bubbles that clumped together unbroken on the surface. Then she would pour the liquid out, catching the developing tadpoles in a net as they plunged in a helpless stream towards the drain. A squirming mass of black, the individual bodies were only discernible when she filled the tank with fresh water and tipped them out. She would sit and marvel at the changes that had taken place, hidden from her until then. It was her favourite part – comparing the unseen changes in each of her wards: the small buds of limbs, the tails diminishing as their nutrients were absorbed into the growing body, the round pouted lips of tadpoles and the slashed mouths of frogs.
She was floating towards the weir now, the rushing sound of the water filtering towards her. A large tadpole swam confidently up from the bottom, coming up close to her swaying hair before darting back to safety. Someone poked her hard on her thigh with a black baton, pushing her hips under water and making her upper torso arch. The platanna left a swirling muddy cloud as it swam away.
A young policeman hovered on the bank, the toes of his black boots pressing into the mud at the water’s edge. The naked woman in the water seemed both peaceful and taut, as if she was waiting to leap up and spray him with generous slaps of water, laughing and pointing at him. He did not touch her again. He looked behind him to see who was watching, but the couple who had been walking their dog was standing at a respectable distance, holding each other’s arms and talking in hushed tones. He turned back to the woman in the river.
Her body was lithe, despite the slackness induced by the water. He wondered how old she was. Her heels were smooth and showed none of the rough, cracked skin of the poor or the homeless. Her rounded buttocks bobbed up out of the water, showing an uncreased line of skin from the small of her back over the soft mound and across her upper thigh. He could see only one of her arms, and the forearm was obscured by her head. Her other arm descended beneath her body, trailing in the mud and snagging on the remnants of newspaper and plastic packets collected on the bottom. Her hair spread out from her head, decorated with broken twigs and fallen leaves. A small black beetle sought refuge from the water, climbing delicately up one of the strands.
The policeman’s attention turned once more to her back and legs. Thin strips of white skin contrasted against the tan of her lower back and thighs; a small white V trailing into the strings of a bikini bottom, wrapping around her waist and disappearing evocatively between her buttocks, slinking unseen towards her anus.
There was no similar marking on her back – no narrowing line of a bikini top or bra, he noticed. Smooth brown skin stretched invitingly from her shoulders down to the line around her lower waist.
His throat felt dry and he wiped his hands against his trousers, digging his boots deeper into the mud. The water ran over the polished leather, wetting the black cotton laces. Her arm dragged against the side of the bank, halting the gentle movement of her body with the current.
The young constable moved forward as the water pressed against her thighs, the pressure pushing her closer towards him. He felt himself looming over her naked body, tipping towards her. He flushed with boyish excitement as he edged closer. Then one boot slipped, sliding into the mud. He thrashed against the water, sending the hadeda into the air, protesting raucously. Scrambling to regain his balance, he bumped his leg against her hip. The solidness of her weight against him, the unexpected contact, bolted through him and he clenched his teeth, trying not to swear. A grunt forced its way out of his mouth as he fell back onto the bank, crabwalking away from her body.
He sat panting on the grass, embarrassed and alarmed. The man behind him shouted something – a questioning call which the policeman ignored. Instead, he slid down towards the water again. She awaited him, lying sleepily as he approached. Holding his baton firmly in his hand, he leaned towards her. The rounded tip of the baton pushed against her skin but did not move her. He positioned himself closer to her, close enough to reach out and touch her, to slide his hand underneath her and lift her towards him. Close enough to run his hand across her back. But he did not touch her. Instead, he pushed harder with his baton. She started to turn towards him in the water. The sun burned on his neck. He felt sweaty and grimy.
He first saw her arm folded limply across her stomach – loose muscles floating in brown water. She turned towards him in slow motion, showing her body to him in minute degrees. Still she hid her face from him. Her legs paused at the peak of their turn, then finally slid over one another with a small splash. The turn of her thighs brought her torso towards the sun, her feet disappearing into the water. Her bikini line showed brightly, wrapped around from her back and running just above the tight dots of shaven pubic hair. The change in her position was causing her body to sink, he realised. He reached forward, holding his breath, and grabbed her arm. Her skin was malleable, like soft plastic. He shuddered involuntarily, drawing her body up to his leg. A flaccid breast brushed against his trouser leg.
Still he could not see her face. Her hair was matted in wet clumps across her cheek. He let her head drop beneath the surface, still holding her arm. The water dragged her hair back, away from her eyes. Her face, still cloaked with hair, broke the surface again, and the woman stared straight up at the young policeman.
‘Fok!’ he cried out in shock, as if he had been hurt. Backing up the bank, he mouthed obscenities at the ground. The couple retreated towards the road, holding onto each other in alarm.
Her dark-brown eyes were wide and unforgiving. She was pretty and seemed very young. He did not recognise her. Her head dropped below the surface and rose again. This time her hair flowed beneath her, revealing her full face. An open wound – a deep, purple slash with raised edges – crossed her forehead. Clear water dribbled out of the side of her smashed skull.
‘Nee, nee, nee!’ The words rushed up into his throat, burning his tongue like vomit. He could not keep them in his mouth and his speech was reduced to a garbled string of fierce sounds.
‘You okay?’ the man shouted from the road, unsure whether to come to his aid. The policeman felt humiliated. He wished they would leave. He wished the man would take the body of the young woman away. He wished the man’s wife would hold him tightly. He wanted to cry – from the horror, for the young woman in the river, for himself.
‘You need a hand?’ the man shouted again, making no effort to come forward.
‘Nee … no,’ the policeman managed, looking back. ‘It’s okay. I’ve got … her.’ He turned back to the river and spat into the ground.
The constable leaned over against the bonnet of the van. The metal was hot, but the ungiving surface and hint of diesel were comforting. The radio crackled loudly with a complaint from a neighbouring suburb. The couple was trying to get their Labrador into the car. The young constable tried to calm himself down. He thought of his training at the barracks. He thought of his uniform. He felt the 9mm firearm strapped to his side. He touched the smooth roundness of his baton. He thought of the body moving in the river and felt the heaving breaths rising once again.
The radio came on. ‘Call sign Philander. Constable Philander. Kom in op daai Kode Agt. Code Eight on that complaint. Response? Over.’
Constable Philander took a deep breath and stood up. His face was wet with sweat and tears. He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, leaving a crusty mark on the skin. A dirty arc of mud stained his boot, and grass seeds stuck onto his socks. He opened the passenger door of the vehicle and slumped down into the worn seat, his firearm digging roughly into his side. The radio gave its customary beep as he pressed the button.
‘Control, Stellenbosch call sign Philander,’ he heaved. ‘Jy kan dit … positief. Positive, control. Positive.’
‘Positief!’ the radio crackled back at him. ‘Wat bedoel jy positief? Wat gaan daar aan, man?’ But the policeman ignored it.
* * * * *
The ibis returned to the bank of the river. The young woman stared up into the blue sky, unblinking and unconcerned as the gnats swarmed about her face.
HUSH, LITTLE BABY
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won’t sing,
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa’s gonna buy you a looking glass
And if that looking glass gets broke,
Papa’s gonna buy you a billy goat
And if that billy goat won’t pull,
Papa’s gonna buy you a cart and bull
And if that cart and bull fall down,
You’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
DETECTIVE Inspector Eberard Februarie stood in front of a mirror, his light-blue cotton shirt unbuttoned. Water dripped off his face and splashed onto the tiled floor – grey-white squares with chipped and yellowed grouting. The bathroom smelt of wholesale disinfectant, the same bite of cheap chemicals that pervaded the entire building. The detective’s waking hours were defined by the odour; it followed him wherever he went, wafting from cracks and corners, encircling his body and permeating his uniform. It was the only smell he could detect now that his senses had constricted. He thought it had been the cocaine that had damaged his nasal passages, searing the delicate membrane and burning his sense of smell away, but the truth was that his senses were abandoning his body. As his emotions numbed, so his points of contact with the outside world retreated. Food became tasteless; sounds seemed muffled and distant; everything he touched was smooth and sticky. But it was the loss of smell that he noticed most. Now, all the offices, in every station he visited, emitted the astringent smell. The corridors of the courts were washed with it, and, when he delivered suspects to the awaiting-trial cells, or interviewed prisoners in the prison itself, he walked past amorphous dark-green figures on their hands and knees, slopping the same substance on tired linoleum floors. It was the smell of the state, the smell of his captured life, and it followed him everywhere, impersonal, harsh and pervasive.
The soap on the basin was an unhealthy pink colour, soggy from standing in pools of water. It disintegrated into slug-like chunks as he tried to pick it up. The taps were discoloured from fingerprinting ink, and someone had tried to write their name in thick black lines on the wall. Messages in blue ballpoint pen were scrawled among the black stains. ‘Jonny Boy was hier.’ ‘Fok die boere.’ ‘Nog jare wat kom.’ The towel hanging next to the basin was unusable – threadbare and streaked with stains. It hung over the rail, moist, like the fresh skin of an animal. A window grated on its hinges, caught by the breeze. The rank, foetid smell of a blocked drain blew into the room. This is my world, Eberard thought.
He sighed and cupped his hands under the gushing water again. It at least was cool and clean, running over his fingers in loops. The sensation calmed him, and he splashed his face once more before standing up. His unbuttoned shirt parted and he stared at his brown chest. In his imagination, he saw a jagged bullet wound. Its centre was black, a circle of nothingness behind which the damage to his body lurked. He had seen enough bullet wounds to know. The edges were a dark red, the colour of old blood, with small flaps of skin and flesh protruding into the void. He fingered the flaps of his cotton shirt and imagined the threads, pulled out by the force of the bullet, sticking to the skin around the wound. It was strange, he thought, mesmerised by the morbid vision, nothing leaks out of the hole. Surely something should ooze out of the wound, a trickle of blood or moisture? The wad of lead, crafted and turned on some machine, would tear into his body, but his body let nothing out. Someone – who? – would do this one day, would fire a shot into him, but he would have no response, nothing to give back. He tried to imagine the pain his body would feel. Would it be a blunt pain, like when someone punches you hard in the stomach, like a bruise on your hip? Or would it be a sharp pain, definable and identifiable? The pain of a knife or a burn? I should feel not only the pain of broken skin and flesh, he thought, but also the indeterminate pain of organs, of broken bones, inside me.
The sound of the water slurping down the drain broke his reverie. He ran his palm over his smooth chest, hairless except for a few tight curls between his sagging pectoral muscles. The reality of being injured felt very close; he could put out his hand and touch the wound. He could create the scene with ease. He could stare at himself in the mirror and see the damage. But he could not take hold of the pain. The detective had stopped feeling emotion when he had been medically boarded for stress. Working in the narcotics unit, the access to hard drugs had been too easy and his need for escape too strong. Addiction had tightened its grip and squeezed his career and marriage dry. Now he longed to feel anything at all, even if only the physical pain of a blade or bullet.
‘Februarie!’ The door was pushed open with energy, knocking against the inside wall with a cracking bang. Eberard jumped involuntarily. He felt suddenly guilty, as if he had been caught doing something surreptitious. Reading someone’s diary. Or masturbating.
‘Sorry, Inspector,’ the administration officer apologised, looking away, ‘but there’s a call for you. You can take it in my office.’
‘Tell them to hold. I’m coming now.’ Eberard turned off the tap and buttoned up his shirt. Although he had showered that morning, his hair was matted and looked unwashed. He ran his fingers across his head, turning away from the mirror without bothering to check his final appearance.
‘Inspector.’ The area commissioner’s deep voice commanded respect. The receiver was warm from someone else’s touch, repulsive rather than comforting. ‘I need for you to take charge of a new investigation.’ The speaker’s accent was densely Afrikaans. ‘Cape Town Violent Crimes Unit don’t have the manpower to take a case in Stellenbosch. Captain Fourie will meet you at the morgue. He’ll explain it to you so far. The body was removed this morning, but otherwise you’ll start from the beginning.’ The commissioner cleared his throat loudly, emitting the sound of phlegm mixed with nicotine. ‘Ja, so if you can meet the captain.’
‘Right away?’ Eberard asked, restraining his irritation. His desk was already piled high with dockets waiting for his attention.
‘If you don’t think you’re ready vir hierdie soort … for this kind of case,’ the commissioner said slowly, meaningfully. A gulf of accusation stood between the two men. Both paused, breathing into the receivers. Waiting.
‘No, Commissioner,’ Eberard broke the silence, ‘I’m only asking if I must meet Captain Fourie right away?’
‘Ja, nou dadelik. Dankie, Inspector.’ The commissioner hung up before Eberard could ask anything further. He put the receiver down slowly and stared out of the dusty window.
The back of the yard was filled with confiscated vehicles, minibus taxis involved in collisions, twisted and deformed. An old bronze Mercedes rested in the corner, with thick, cylindrical holes punched along the driver’s door and the side window smashed open. Glass pieces glinted like diamonds in the sun, scattered across the tarmac between the wrecks. A faded red Mazda, its front wheels missing and its axle pushing into the tar, squatted in a pool of old black oil. The oil had solidified and grasses and sweet papers had embedded themselves in the grime. Broken windows, torn metal, defaced lives. Each wreck had its own story, grimly waiting to be towed to the Kuilsriver yard, where it would be stripped and crushed. Squashed into unidentified blocks of scrap. No more a reminder of its tragedy. But out there, in someone’s life, the tragedy remained, never to be forgotten. To the policemen, these wrecks were invisible; they arrived and left, but were no more noticeable than the bergies sleeping in doorways, or the dying prostitutes standing on street corners. Their stories were of no consequence.
Eberard Februarie had requested a post at a small station on his return to work, with the hope of reducing his workload. He had wanted to be close to Cape Town, to his daughter, to try to rekindle a meaningful relationship with her, despite his ex-wife’s best efforts to isolate him. He was in need of a work environment with less expectations and fewer temptations. And perhaps colleagues who had no knowledge of, or interest in, his past. His request had been granted, but moving to the small town of Stellenbosch had been difficult. The community was insular and self-contained. They did not warm to newcomers easily, and he spent his spare time mostly alone. The racial tension between officers at the station was more pronounced than in the bigger units; perhaps it was only that it could not be avoided as easily. His male colleagues remained in their small groups, racially demarcated, laughing at private jokes and talking of shared events from their past. Towards the newcomer they were suspicious and unhelpful.
His female colleagues were more generous. He sensed that their attitude towards him was governed by maternal pity, and that it was his vulnerability that softened them. It made for unsatisfying interactions, however; they displayed a morbid interest in his emotional trauma, quietly tugging at the threads of his hurt, persistently teasing information from him. He longed to break free of the stigma that had attached to him, but he increasingly discovered that his history defined him – it wasn’t a limb he could simply cut off. He was seen by the outside world as a patient, a person in need of care. The more he tried to fight against the definition, the more concerted were the efforts to uncover his turmoil.
The station commander, Superintendent Kotze, had called him into his office during his first week. ‘Inspector, as you know, this isn’t a large station and we have a shortage of manpower. I can’t assign you a partner. You’ll have to work on your own for now. But with your experience, I’m sure that won’t be a problem.’ The double meaning of the statement hung in the air. The superintendent shuffled some papers on his desk, clearing his throat. ‘But we do have reservists who have applied to be moved from the shifts to come and help with the detectives. I’ll assign one of them to you, once we’ve considered their applications. With your experience, they’ll learn a lot.’
Eberard knew that having a reservist assigned to him was a sign of disrespect. But he did not protest. During the eighteen months that he had been at the station, he’d been assigned a variety of ill-trained and overenthusiastic reservists. Each brought their own peculiar problems. Inevitably, after a few months, they would complain of his surliness, his lack of communication, his failure to teach them anything about criminal investigation, and they would return to the shifts.
Recently, he had been assigned a young woman reservist. She was an undergraduate law student at the university and her availability was erratic. The lack of routine in her work as a reservist would normally have annoyed the detective, but to his surprise he found that he enjoyed working with her. Constable Xoliswa Nduku had only recently completed her reservist training and had spent her required six months working behind the charge office desk. The detective had noticed her there on occasion: a tall, powerfully built woman with striking facial features. She was young and, as a police officer, wholly inexperienced. Because of her youth, gender and race, she would normally have faced a barrage of snide comments and lewd passes in the charge office, but she carried herself with a grace and confidence that was almost intimidating.
In the beginning, Eberard had found her stillness threatening. She would sit alongside him for hours without saying a word. He had assumed that she was shy and perhaps unintelligent. He had tried talking to her about insignificant events, his speech strained and thin, but she had shown no interest and he had given up. But now her silence was a comfort to him; he liked her for not prying like the others. He knew that his first impression of her had been wrong; her silence was a sign of her confidence, not her lack of it. She did not feel the need to fill up time with small talk. She preferred to sit and observe. She would think and watch and, when the need arose, she would talk, looking straight at her listener, expecting their full attention. The words left her lips in an unhesitating stream; she was both coherent and succinct. When she was finished, she would consider the response, again giving the speaker her unflinching attention. Then she would be still once more. Perhaps fifteen years her senior, Eberard still felt unnerved by her at times.
* * * * *
She was waiting for him now in the yard at the station. Though her presence at the station was sporadic, she was always punctual.
‘Good afternoon, Inspector,’ she said, climbing into the passenger seat and smiling at Eberard warmly. A slight whiff of soap and spray-on deodorant entered the car, breaking through the layer of burning disinfectant about his nose. Eberard turned to her, a little surprised. She looked back at him, quizzically. ‘Is something the matter, Inspector?’
‘No, no,’ he replied quickly. Too quickly. ‘It’s just that … you smell so nice.’ He felt the heat of a blush on his cheeks. ‘I’m just not used to smelling … such good smells.’ She laughed and looked away, not wishing to prolong his embarrassment. He tried to cover his discomfort, dropping the keys on the floor and swearing quietly under his breath.
They drove through the busy streets of the town in silence. The gates of the pathology laboratory appeared on the left, and Eberard turned into the tarred car park, parking in the bay closest to the aluminium and glass entrance. It occurred to him that this could be his passenger’s first visit. ‘Xoli, have you been here before?’ he asked. ‘To the morgue?’ Again he felt suddenly uncomfortable, although he could not discern why.
She turned to face him. ‘Mmm, when I was eighteen,’ she said, nodding. ‘I had to identify my brother’s body.’
‘Oh.’ Eberard suddenly wished he hadn’t asked the question. ‘Was he … I mean, how did he…’ His voice trailed off as Xoliswa explained, matter-of-factly, how her brother’s life had been ended by a falling crate on the apple farm where he had worked as a labourer. She had identified the body at the same morgue.
‘I’m sorry,’ Eberard managed.
‘One of the guys tried to touch my breasts while I was saying goodbye to my brother.’
Eberard’s eyes involuntarily dropped from her face to where her chest pressed out against the fabric of her uniform. A prickle of sweat broke out on his neck. ‘But that was the only time I came here. I’ve never been here as a policewoman.’ She waited briefly for a reply and, when none was forthcoming, opened her door and stepped out into the sunshine.
Captain Fourie was waiting for them. He was a small, compact man, dressed neatly in senior officer’s uniform. A clipped moustache ran in a thin line exactly halfway between the bottom of his nose and his top lip. Eberard thought he heard him click his heels as he put out his hand. His handshake was tight and cold.
‘Inspector.’ His voice was shrill and the consonants grated.
Eberard turned to introduce Xoliswa, but the captain had already turned on his heels. ‘Follow me,’ he said curtly, walking swiftly down the corridor.
The walls were filled with torn posters, pictures from old campaigns against child abuse, Aids, sexually transmitted diseases. A new South African Police Union poster had been stuck up with large mounds of Prestik, half-covering the picture of a child with pleading eyes and a bruise on her cheek. An empty box rested on a small table, below a sign drawn in black koki pen: ‘The Truth on Aids. Please take one’. The smell of disinfectant filled his nose again, although this time it was mixed with something even more pungent. Eberard sighed and followed the captain.
‘In here.’ The captain turned and pushed through two heavy swing doors. The smell became stronger. Xoliswa stood back and allowed her senior to enter first. The smell in the room was almost overpowering. Eberard expected the walls to be scorched with ammonia and the floors to be scoured. The state pathologist was hunched over his desk, concentrating on a small plastic container, a desk lamp peering over him.
‘Dr Rademan,’ the captain announced, ‘the investigating officer is here to see you.’ Fourie turned to Eberard. ‘The doctor will explain everything you need to know. The paperwork is in the docket.’ He pushed a thin file into Eberard’s hands and walked past him and Xoliswa. He clearly had misgivings about handing the investigation over to the two of them. The swing doors swished angrily behind him as he left. Xoliswa looked around the room and then frowned towards the doctor.
‘Come here, please.’ Rademan’s voice was warm and limp, and he waved to them vaguely, his attention still focused on the container in front of him.
Eberard walked across the laboratory towards him, avoiding the steel table in the middle of the room. Jars with tight lids, filled with greenish-yellow liquid and indiscernible body parts, lined the shelves above Rademan’s desk. A stacked pile of dockets had collapsed, dropping papers onto the floor. Last year’s calendar was hanging at an angle next to the desk above a jar of old ballpoints and koki pens without their caps, dried and unusable. The pathologist looked up at Eberard briefly.
‘Dr Rademan. How do you do? And what is your name?’
Eberard looked over the man’s shoulder into the plastic container; the doctor was pushing pieces of bright pink polony and lettuce between two thin slices of white bread. ‘That’s the trouble with bringing your lunch to work in your briefcase.’ Rademan gave a nervous laugh. ‘It gets thrown around, you see, and all the filling falls out. Won’t take a minute. Sorry, what did you say your name was?’
‘Inspector Februarie, Doctor,’ Eberard replied, ‘and this is Constable Nduku.’
‘February and Duku. February and Duku,’ Rademan repeated to himself. ‘It’s not Starsky and Hutch, now is it? No, not quite Starsky and Hutch.’ The pathologist laughed to himself and looked up for appreciation. ‘No, well, anyway, don’t mind that,’ he continued distractedly.
A kitchen cutting board lay next to Rademan’s lunch box, with a lump of what looked like wet dough in the middle, neatly positioned next to a steel scalpel. Liquid had collected around the base of the dough and was trickling off the edge of the board. Rademan held up his sandwich triumphantly and took a large bite out of its centre. He noticed Eberard staring at the cutting board. ‘Dessert!’ he exclaimed with a twinkle in his eye, spraying crumbs of white bread and polony. Still laughing, he put the sandwich back into his lunch box and wiped his hands down the front of his coat. He picked up his scalpel and pressed the back of the instrument into the dough. A delicate stream of bubbles, and then a thicker froth, emerged out of the one end.
‘Do you see that? That’s water and mucus. Well, in truth it’s a reaction to the presence of water. But either way, it’s the water that’s important, isn’t it?’ Eberard looked at him blankly. ‘Well, she was alive when she went into the water, wasn’t she? She was breathing when she went under. You see that? There, you see the froth. She was alive.’
Eberard started to feel dizzy. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Rademan, I haven’t really been told anything about this case yet,’ he explained. ‘I mean, all I know is that you’ve taken out someone’s lung and found that they drowned. Other than that I’m not really sure what I’m dealing with here.’ He flipped open the docket: brief details of a body found, the place, the time, the name of the first officer on the scene – a Constable Philander – nothing substantial. ‘The captain was unfortunately too busy to fill me in properly,’ he added. The pathologist raised his eyebrows knowingly.
‘She’s over here.’ Rademan stood up and walked over to the steel table. Eberard saw to his surprise that Xoliswa had been standing alongside the table all the time, studying the body carefully. ‘She’s young, white, female, as you can see.’ Rademan was more serious now, although still animated. ‘I would say that she’s about eighteen or nineteen years old. Probably a middle-class family – well manicured, you see.’ He gestured towards her feet. ‘Nails are clipped, the hair is cared for, although it has been subjected to various amounts of dyeing, and there are no signs of poor nutrition. Pretty child, in fact.’
The young woman lay on her back. Her body had been slit open from her throat to below her navel. Eberard took a step back. The body still retained the overall sense of a human being, the head, shoulders, the legs and feet. But the middle had been ripped out, cut up and dissected as if she were some exotic vegetable. The dark opening in her torso gaped at him.
Rademan looked at him quizzically. ‘Don’t worry, Inspector. We’ll put her back together before her family sees her. Which reminds me, I understand that her identity has not yet been confirmed, so no family members have been contacted as yet.’ Eberard flipped through the file for confirmation. ‘Now, come closer and I’ll show you the important bits.’
Eberard moved forward reluctantly, trying to blinker in on detail. ‘As I’ve shown you,’ the pathologist continued, ‘the actual cause of death was drowning. She was still alive when she went into the water. But I very much doubt that she was conscious.’ Rademan took out a small torch and moved to the head of the table. ‘What we see here is a massive fracture of the left temporal portion of the skull.’ He shone the torch into the gaping fracture; pieces of bone were embedded in the wound.
Eberard felt a dangerously familiar need to escape; the taste of tobacco and chemicals on his tongue made him feel nauseous. The pathologist’s voice rattled on. He had not yet removed the brain; he wanted them to see the fracture first. The fracture was large and deep and would have caused immediate brain dysfunction. It appeared to have resulted from a single blow, a blow of great force, from a blunt object such as a rock.
‘If you look carefully,’ the doctor leaned in closely, his mouth almost brushing against her cheek, ‘you’ll see small grains of sand pushed into the fracture. It’s not conclusive, but I’d suggest that she was hit with a rock, maybe a brick or something similar. While she was deeply unconscious, but still alive, she was placed somewhere in the stream where she was found.’
‘So was the cause of death the blow to the head or drowning, Doctor?’ Xoliswa was staring at Rademan, who seemed a little taken aback. He coughed nervously while appraising her more carefully. ‘Would the person who hit her have killed her if she hadn’t been put in the river?’ Xoliswa clarified.
‘Yes, yes, I see your point. What if someone else put her in the water? Yes, uhm … well certainly, as I said, it’s clear that she was still breathing when she went in. The blow was severe and may well have killed her without the intervention of the water. I’ll need to conclude my investigation to be sure. But what is clear is that she died from of a lack of oxygen as a result of immersion in water. She drowned. Either way, whoever did this achieved what they set out to do … assuming that the same person put her in the river.’
Xoliswa nodded. Her eyes were focused on the young body, her fingertips brushing against the cold steel table. ‘Then we probably only need to know whether she was raped or not,’ she said softly, as if to herself. She walked down the table and placed her hand gently on the young woman’s hip. Eberard shuddered involuntarily. He was unsure whether he should join her. Averting his eyes from the beckoning cavity in the body’s torso, he moved down towards the foot of the table. His mouth felt dry and sour.
Rademan slid the back end of the scalpel between the labia, pulling to one side to expose pink flesh. ‘I can’t tell you much at this stage,’ he began. ‘Yes, she did have intercourse, probably within twelve hours of her death. First examination revealed a quantity of seminal fluid on the walls of the vagina. Given that she had been floating in water for a while, the quantity was quite surprising. And in itself may be significant. Specimens will be sent for testing.’ He paused briefly, looking up at them. ‘Was the intercourse consensual? There are no immediately apparent signs of trauma, whether internal or external. There are abrasions on the inner thigh and small contusions internally.’
‘That could be passion as easily as it could be resistance,’ Xoliswa interjected evenly.
‘Quite so,’ Rademan said, adjusting his glasses on his nose. ‘Once I’ve studied the internal wall and smaller veins of the vagina, I’ll be in a position to give you a better indication. It would also help if you could find her clothes. That’s all I can give you for now.’
Eberard walked towards the doors, relieved to be away from the body. At the entrance to the morgue, the three discussed possible test results. Rademan could test for blood alcohol, stomach contents and narcotics, as well as blood type and basic testing on the seminal fluid, but the cost of a DNA test would need to be justified by reasonable grounds for comparison with a suspect.
‘I’ll keep a sample available for testing,’ Rademan confirmed, ‘but I can’t justify the cost of the test unless you bring me a suspect. That’s about it.’
Eberard walked out into the sunshine. The smell of ammonia clung to him. The tarmac was hot, and he sat in the car for a while with the door open, reading through the terse notes and poorly written statement from Constable Philander. He handed the documents to Xoliswa one at a time as he finished each page. She studied them carefully, reading and rereading each statement slowly, extracting all possible information from the thin docket.
‘I think it would be advisable for me to have a female officer working with me on this case,’ he suggested. ‘It would also be a good case for you. So long as … well, anyway, I’ll ask the superintendent to assign you as my partner in CID for another few months.’
‘That would be good,’ she said, without looking up.
Eberard watched her as she read. She was so different from him, in all respects, and yet he saw something in her that he recognised. Something that he had once had but no longer sought: an interest in her surroundings, in herself, an interest in her life. He wondered what he could possibly offer someone like her. Or his own daughter, for that matter.
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Andrew Brown is an author, a lawyer, and a volunteer police officer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for Coldsleep Lullaby, and his work has also been shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa Region). He is married and has three children.