Dying to Live by Michael Stanley is the sixth crime novel to feature the humble and endearing Detective Kubu, set against the richly beautiful backdrop of Botswana (available October 24, 2014).
A Bushman is discovered dead near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Africa. Although the man looks old enough to have died of natural causes, the police suspect foul play, and the body is sent to Gaborone for an autopsy. Pathologist Ian MacGregor confirms the cause of death as a broken neck, but is greatly puzzled by the man’s physiology. Although he’s obviously very old, his internal organs look remarkably young. He calls in Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu. When the Bushman’s corpse is stolen from the morgue, suddenly the case takes on a new dimension.
Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble, whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.
The Bushman was very old. That much was obvious. His skin was a web of wrinkles, and there wasn’t a smooth area even the size of a thebe coin on his face. The lips were cracked and parched. But the most striking thing was the short crinkly hair covering the wizened head. It was pure white. Segodi couldn’t remember ever seeing a Bushman with pure-white hair before; it was a sign of age so advanced that few Bushmen, with their challenging lifestyle, ever attained it.
The detective cursed.
What was the man doing out here alone? he wondered. He should have been with his family group in nearby New Xade. Or, if he’d walked into the desert to die in peace, why had he chosen to do so in sight of the road into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve rather than somewhere private in the middle of nowhere?
Instead, foreign tourists driving to the game reserve had spotted the body being checked out by a scavenger and reported it to the police station at New Xade, thirty miles up the road. Constable Ixau—who was the New Xade police force—had investigated and called the Criminal Investigation Department in Ghanzi. Which was why Segodi was sweltering in the Kalahari sun, with a mask over his nose and mouth, instead of being in the relative comfort of his office.
Now there would be paperwork and aggravation, to say nothing of having to share the Land Rover with the corpse for a hundred miles before it was disposed of in the public cemetery.
The area around the body was scuffed and trampled, which could have been caused by the shocked tourists. When he scanned the surroundings, he spotted something important—there were two sets of footprints coming out of the desert and ending at the body. This had been no lonely leave-taking; someone had walked with the Bushman to this spot before he died.
“What do you make of that?” Segodi asked the constable.
Constable Ixau followed the sergeant’s eyes. “Someone was walking with him in the desert.”
Segodi frowned, wondering why he wasted his breath. Ixau was clearly more than half Bushman. Surely he knew something about tracking in the desert. The detective examined the footprints more carefully. The sand was the soft, gray powder of the Kalahari, and it was difficult to make out much about the tracks.
Ixau joined him. “They came from there,” he said, pointing to the left.
Looking down the road, the sergeant saw a second set of tracks—again of two people—some distance away. He walked over to check, and indeed, these were heading into the desert, away from the road.
“Fetch me the camera,” he ordered the constable. “And bring the gloves.” He was starting to have a bad feeling.
When he’d photographed the body from various angles and taken multiple shots of the two sets of tracks—the one leading into the desert and the other ending at the body—he put on the latex gloves and kneeled next to the body. There were no obvious injuries. Without much difficulty, he lifted the right arm for a closer look. Apparently the man had been dead for some time, and the rigor mortis was starting to recede. There were contusions on the wrist. Perhaps that was the result of how the body had fallen, he thought.
He checked the other hand, but it seemed fine. But there was something odd about the neck. The angle didn’t seem quite right. And there was a scratch and other abrasions on the side of the face.
Segodi sighed. There was more trouble here than just paperwork. Someone had walked out of the desert with the Bushman, perhaps there had been a fight, and now the Bushman was dead.
What had happened to the other person? he wondered. Only a Bushman could survive out here on foot in the middle of nowhere.
Segodi glanced at the road. There were tire marks at the side, but that was probably the tourists’ vehicle. Nevertheless, he took a number of pictures.
Segodi told the constable to be careful with the body when they lifted it onto the body bag. He was going to send it for an autopsy. That would have to be in Gaborone, seven hours away from Ghanzi by van.
The corpse was even lighter than they’d imagined, and they carried the body bag to the Land Rover without difficulty. Segodi told the constable to mark the area where the body had been with stones while he noted the GPS coordinates. When that was done, Ixau drew the sergeant’s attention back to the tracks. “I think these are the victim’s,” he said, pointing at the ones on the right. “He was a small man. You can see they are not as deep as the others, and not as big.”
Segodi turned to the footprints again. He examined them closely and realized that the constable was right. He grunted agreement.
An idea struck him. Was it possible one of the tourists had followed the Bushman’s tracks? He’d need to check if he could contact them. It seemed unlikely, but that would explain the double tracks very neatly. He was of two minds whether to follow them. They might go a long way, and the corpse was already stinking up his vehicle.
“Shouldn’t we see where they go?” Ixau asked.
Segodi gave him an angry look. Now he had no choice.
“Come on, then,” he replied. “We’ll start where they head into the desert.”
“Wait a minute,” Ixau said. “Someone was running along the road here.” He pointed at scuff marks on the verge of the road.
To Segodi the marks could have been anything, but he was beginning to respect the Bushman’s observations. “How do you know he was running?”
“The gaps between them are too long,” Ixau replied.
Ixau shook his head. “The gaps between them are too long,” he repeated.
Segodi frowned, puzzled. “Someone ran from there?” he asked, pointing back to where the body had been. “Maybe after killing the Bushman?”
Ixau thought about it, then shook his head. “I think running towards the body.”
It made no sense to Segodi, and he shrugged it off. “Let’s follow the tracks.”
Moving parallel to the pair of footprints so as not to disturb them, they walked for about a mile through the desert. The tracks wandered to and fro, crossed themselves, and then headed off again, as though the walkers had been looking for something.
In some places, the ground was the calcrete limestone common in this part of the Kalahari, and the tracks disappeared altogether. When that happened, Ixau headed straight on, and soon the tracks reappeared. The two people had made no effort to hide the signs of their progress.
Eventually they came to a depression surrounded by small sand drifts and calcrete scree. Apparently the men had spent some time here, and it seemed that they’d taken samples, because there were several small pits dug in the stony ground. Prospecting? Segodi wondered. Someone looking for the hidden gems of the Kalahari? He snorted. Not that old nonsense again. Or was it something else?
He squatted and felt around in one of the holes, still wearing the latex gloves, but found nothing except a few root fibers, sand, and calcrete pebbles. He let them run through his fingers and stood up.
“You make anything of this?” he asked the constable. Ixau shook his head.
After that, the tracks headed directly back toward the road, without the detours and crossings that had marked their progress into the desert. After a short time the two policemen were back at the vehicle.
“Okay, let’s head back,” Segodi said, wiping the sweat pouring off his face. “As soon as we get to New Xade, radio Ghanzi and tell them to drive a van towards New Xade. I’ll meet them on the way. We need to get that body to Gaborone as soon as possible.”
Copyright © 2017 Michael Stanley.
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Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Sears was born in Johannesburg, grew up in Cape Town and Nairobi, and teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand. Trollip was also born in Johannesburg and has been on the faculty of the universities of Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota, and at Capella University. He divides his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Michael is the author of the Detective Kubu Mystery series, including A Death in the Family.