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Blessed Are the Dead

An Emmanuel Cooper Mystery
By Malla Nunn

Read an Excerpt

1

A ZULU HERD BOY walked quickly up the dirt path, his bony frame bent to meet the steep rise of the mountain. The rhythmic pounding of his bare feet on the rough ground kicked stones loose and raised red dust into the air.

“Higher, ma’ baas.” The boy was apologetic, afraid of taxing the white policeman in the neat blue suit and the black hat pulled low on his head to block out the light. “We must go higher.”

“I’m right behind you,” Emmanuel said. “Keep going.”

The steady pace was nothing compared to army boot camp or the three years spent in combat, marching between battlefields in Europe during the war. Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala from the Native Detective Branch followed directly behind him and the close rhythm of his breath spurred Emmanuel to keep moving.

“Soon, ma’ baas,” the boy promised. “Soon.”

“I’m still with you,” Emmanuel said. The dead were patient. To them, eternity was flexible and time meant nothing. For police detectives, however, time was everything. The sooner the crime scene was located and sketched in detail, the better chance there was of catching the killer.

The herd boy stopped abruptly and then slipped into the lush grass along the edge of the path.

“There, ma’ baas.” He pointed a skinny finger to the rise. The path snaked behind a sandstone boulder embedded in the grass. “You must go past the rock and up again.”

The boy wanted no part of what lay beyond.

“My thanks,” Emmanuel said, and turned to look behind him. He saw the path they had traveled from the floor of the Kamberg Valley and the mountains rising in the distance on the other side. Clouds piled on top of each other behind the peaks. The bronze tops of the mountains, some of them dusted with snow, looked like fortresses for gods. There was nothing like the Drakensberg Mountains anywhere else on earth.

“Where to, Sergeant?” Shabalala asked when he drew even with Emmanuel.

“Around that bend,” Emmanuel said. “Our guide has dropped out.”

They moved on, slowly skirting the boulder. Three Zulu men dressed in traditional cowhides worn over printed cloth stood shoulder to shoulder across the narrow path to form a roadblock. They held hardwood clubs and assegais, hunting spears with rawhide bindings and sharp blades. Together they made an impi, a fighting unit. The tallest of the men stood in the center.

“Suggestions?” Emmanuel asked Shabalala.

The Zulu men gave no indication that they might move from the middle of the path. Military defeat at the hands of the British army and Boer commandos had not cowed them. They stood as their ancestors must have a hundred years ago: fearless masters of their own land.

“Should we wait for the local police?” Shabalala asked. Far below and across the emerald stretch of the valley lay the town of Roselet, the closest source of law enforcement backup.

“The station commander might not get the message for hours,” Emmanuel said, referring to the handwritten note he’d stuck to the door of the locked police station an hour ago. A small sandstone bungalow adjacent to the station had also been empty. “I don’t want to lose any more time.”

“Then we must go together. Slowly. Hands open, like this.” Shabalala lifted both hands and showed empty palms to the Zulu men. The gesture was simple, universal. It said, No weapons. No harm intended.

Emmanuel did the same.

“Now we must wait,” Shabalala said. “Do not look away from them, Sergeant.”

Sunshine glinted off the fighters’ sharpened spearheads. The weapons were not dusty antiques from a grandfather’s hut. The men themselves were no relics, either. They were tall and muscular. Emmanuel figured a lifetime of running up these mountains and hunting game had kept them lethal.

“Never crossed my mind,” he said.

“Who are you?” the man in the middle demanded in Zulu. He was the eldest of the three.

Sawubona, inkosi. I am Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala from the Native Detective Branch. This is Detective Sergeant Cooper, the boss of detectives in Durban.”

“Yebo, sawubona.” Emmanuel made the traditional greeting. He let the instant promotion to top boss pass. If Shabalala thought they needed extra status to move ahead, they probably did.

“Cooper. Shabalala. We see you.” The elder nodded a greeting but did not smile. “Come. The firstborn child of my father’s sister is waiting.”

Emmanuel didn’t try to work out the connection. Zulus did not have family trees, they had family webs. The men turned and jogged up the slope in formation, weapons held in relaxed hands that were used to the weight.

“You lead,” Emmanuel said to Shabalala. The Zulu detective wore the standard Detective Branch uniform, a suit with polished leather shoes and a black fedora, but the hills and untamed veldt had been his childhood playground. He knew this land and its people.

They pushed up the steep gradient for two more minutes. An eerie low-pitched moaning swelled and rolled over the treetops before dropping away again in a wave.

“What’s that?” Emmanuel asked but didn’t slacken his pace.

“The women.” The words were spare, stripped down but full of sorrow just the same. Shabalala had heard the sound before.

The Zulus stopped and pointed their assegais to a rock fig growing out almost horizontally from a craggy ledge. The sound was distinct now: female voices crying out and wailing in the bushes.

“They are waiting,” the elder Zulu said.

Emmanuel again let Shabalala take the lead. The tall grass and bush thinned out a few yards off the path and a group of women became visible. They sat in a circle, swaying back and forth. The rock fig branched over them like a sentinel. Emmanuel hesitated. One step closer and the sorrow would engulf him and drag him back to a time and place in his own life he’d rather forget.

“Sergeant,” Shabalala prompted softly, and Emmanuel walked on. He’d chosen this life among the wounded and the dead. Dealing with the living was a necessary part of the job.

“She is here, inkosi.” One of the women shuffled to the side to make a gap in the circle through which Emmanuel could approach the body. A black girl lay on the sweet spring grass, gazing up at the soft blue sky and the shapes of darting birds in the air. Her head rested on a rolled-up tartan blanket and tiny red and yellow wildflowers were scattered over the ground. Three or four flowers had fallen into her mouth, which was slightly open.

“We need to get closer,” Emmanuel said to Shabalala, and the Zulu detective relayed the request in a low voice. The women broke the circle but gathered again under the branches of a paperbark thorn tree nearby. Their wails subsided and were replaced by the muted sound of swallowed tears.

“Hibo . . .” Shabalala whispered when they were crouched on either side of the girl. This was not the messy knifing or domestic argument gone too far they’d been expecting when Colonel van Niekerk tapped them on the shoulder for this case.

“Yeah, I know.” Emmanuel examined the victim. She was young, maybe seventeen years old, and beautiful. High cheekbones, gracefully arched brows and full lips were features that would have kept into old age. No more. All that was left was a glimpse of what might have been.

“No signs of a struggle,” he said. The girl’s fingernails were neatly shaped and unbroken. The skin on her wrists, neck and upper arms was unmarked. “If her eyes were closed I’d say she was sleeping.”

“Yes,” Shabalala agreed. “But she did not walk here. Someone brought her to this place. Look at her feet, Sergeant.”

Emmanuel bent lower to get a better view. Dirt and broken grass stalks were stuck to the rough-skinned heels and slim ankles. “She was dragged here and then laid down.”

“I think so,” Shabalala said.

Under normal circumstances, with a wooden barricade in place and a few uniformed police on guard, Emmanuel would have pushed aside the neckline of the girl’s dress and checked for bruising on the shoulders and under the armpits. Modesty was never a concern of the dead. The presence of the gathered Zulu women stayed his hand and he pulled a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket.

To Shabalala he said, “She wasn’t dumped or hidden under branches.”

He wrote the letters R.I.P. on the first page. Rest in peace. Whoever had dragged the victim to this spot had wanted her to rest in a peaceful place with a rock fig above and a wide valley below.

“And the flowers.” Shabalala stood up and surveyed the hillside. Clumps of bright red and yellow broke the stretch of green. “They are growing all around but I do not think the wind blew them to this place.”

“It looks like they were deliberately scattered over her,” Emmanuel said, picking up a tiny red bloom from the crook of the girl’s elbow. He understood this need to mark the fallen. Small gestures made the difference even in the white heat of war: a helmet placed on the chest or a poncho thrown over the face of a dead soldier, the closest thing available to a eulogy or a farewell.

Emmanuel scribbled loved on the next clean page. First time that word had come up at a crime scene. There was no doubt the girl had been loved and was loved still. Even now, in death, a circle of grieving women and a group of armed men guarded her.

“How long do you think she’s been here?” he asked Shabalala. It couldn’t have been more than twelve hours, he imagined. The vultures and wildcats hadn’t begun to disassemble her body.

“One day and a half.” Shabalala walked the perimeter of the crime scene, examining snapped twigs and flattened grass. “The women’s tracks are from this morning but the deep lines from the girl’s heels are from before.”

Emmanuel stood up and moved to where Shabalala was bent over a crushed leaf. “You sure she’s been out in the open all that time?”

“Yes, Sergeant. It is so.”

“But she’s nearly perfect.” He glanced at the girl. Her slender legs were a shoulder width apart, the left knee slightly crooked as if she might sit up at any moment and wave hello. The hem of her white calico dress fluttered against her upper thighs—whether blown by the wind or hitched up by a human hand, it was impossible to tell. A pea-sized mark marred the smooth surface of her left inner thigh. “No animals have disturbed the body. And there are no signs of injury besides that bruise.”

“I see this also,” Shabalala said, and paused, reluctant to continue. Other detectives burned oxygen throwing out half-formed theories and detailed explanations of the how and the why of a murder, but not Shabalala. He did not speak unless he was sure of the facts. It was a learned caution. Black detectives rarely added spontaneous comments or joined in the competitive banter that buzzed around a dead body. They were junior partners, brought onto a case only if special knowledge of “native situations” was needed.

“Tell me,” Emmanuel said. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”

Bullshit theories spun out of thin air had their uses.

“What I see is strange,” Shabalala said.

“Tell me anyway.”

The Zulu policeman pointed to scuff marks in the dirt and to a heavy stick lying on the grass. “I think that the animals did not come near because the one who brought the girl to this place kept them away.”

“You have to explain,” Emmanuel said. The indentations in the dirt meant nothing to him and the stick was clean of blood or other signs of use.

“A man . . .” The Zulu detective hesitated and moved to the right to examine another patch of disturbed earth. “A small man was here. He ran from where the girl is lying to here with the stick. See this, Sergeant?”

The spoor of a wildcat was identifiable even to Emmanuel’s untrained eye. “He moved out to defend the body from predators. That means he must have stayed with her.”

Yebo. I believe this.”

Emmanuel underlined the word loved and then added protected.

“Was he a human predator and the girl his prey?” he wondered aloud. People often killed the one they loved the most.

Shabalala shook his head, frustrated at not having the full picture. “I cannot say if this man was the one to harm her. People have come to this place and walked all around. Some of the women scooped the earth with their hands and threw their bodies in the dirt. Many tracks have been lost. A man brought her here and kept the animals away. That is all I see.”

“We know a lot more than when we got here,” Emmanuel said. “Let’s take another look at the body and then we’ll talk to the women, see what they can tell us about the victim.”

“Yebo,” Shabalala agreed, and they walked back to where the girl lay. A yellow grasshopper had landed on the curve of her neck and was busy cleaning its wings and long antennae.

“No visible injuries,” Emmanuel said, and waved the grasshopper away. Natural causes couldn’t be ruled out yet. “We’ll have to turn her over, find what’s hidden.”

They rolled the body onto its side so the back was visible. A soft gasp came from the women under the paperbark thorn. The girl was theirs and still alive in their minds. To see how easily she slipped from their embrace and into the hands of strangers shocked them.

“There,” Emmanuel said. A small hole, the size of a thumbtack head, punctured the white calico dress just above the waist. Spots of blood speckled the fabric. “Could be a bullet entry wound.”

“Maybe a knife also.” Shabalala pressed his fingertips into the ground where the girl had been lying and checked them. “The soil and grass are damp with blood but not soaked.”

“She didn’t bleed to death. But this isn’t a good time to look at the entry wound.” The mourners had edged closer to the crime scene and their anxiety was palpable. “The district surgeon will have answers for us in a few days. Till then we can only guess at what made the wound. Lay her on her back and let’s find out who she is.”

They rolled the girl’s body into its original position and Shabalala pushed the tartan blanket under her head again, as if she might be uncomfortable without the support.

“Do you want to take the questioning?” Emmanuel asked. He spoke Zulu himself, had mixed in with Zulu boys and girls and even been in and out of their homes till the violent events of his adolescence had seen him and his sister banished to a remote cattle farm and then to a whites-only boarding school. This situation was different.

“You must start,” Shabalala said. “They will know that the police are serious if a white policeman is in charge.”

That made sense. Native policemen and detectives were armed with sticks and given bicycles to ride. They were not allowed to drive police vehicles. The power of the gun and the car and the law itself was in the hands of Europeans. Shabalala knew that. The rural women waiting under the tree knew it also.

“Speak in Zulu,” Shabalala suggested in a quiet voice. “And thank them for looking after the girl until we came.”

“Will do,” Emmanuel said. “If my Zulu isn’t up to scratch you’ll have to take over.”

He approached the mourners. There were six of them, barefoot and dressed in heavy black skirts that fell below the knee. Supple cowhide aprons covered their breasts and each wore a fine black head covering decorated with porcupine quills to signify they were married women; mothers of the clan.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Emmanuel said in Zulu, addressing a woman at the front of the group who was being held up by her elbows to stop her from collapsing onto the ground. She possessed the same beauty as the girl lying on the grass. Surely the victim’s mother or aunt. “Thank you for keeping her safe until we came. We are grateful.”

“Amahle Matebula,” the woman said. “That is my daughter’s name.”

Amahle meant “the beautiful one.” Emmanuel had run the streets of Sophiatown with a fat Zulu girl of the same name. She was meaner and tougher than most of the street boys and proud of it. Shoplifting was her speciality; she sold the goods for a small profit and a kiss from the boys she favored. He’d used her services sparingly, buying last-minute Christmas gifts from her stolen haul.

“You named your daughter well.” Emmanuel introduced himself and Shabalala before retrieving his notebook and pen. “What may I call you?”

“Nomusa.”

Mother of grace. Another perfect name. Emmanuel meant “God is with us.” He was certain his birth mother had named him in one of those bright, dazzling moods that overtook her every few months, when she shone like a fire.

“Tell me about Amahle,” Emmanuel said. “When did you last see her?”

“Friday morning. It was still dark outside. She went to work but did not come home.” Nomusa’s weight sagged and the women holding her upright couldn’t take the strain. They eased her to the ground and propped her up with their hands and shoulders. Emmanuel and Shabalala crouched and waited for the women to settle.

“Where did she work?” Emmanuel asked when Nomusa lifted her head off her chest. Five more minutes and she would not even be able to do that.

“At the farmhouse of Inkosi Reed.” A gray-haired woman to Nomusa’s right whispered in her ear and she added, “Little Flint Farm. It is close to here. In the valley.”

“What time did Amahle normally leave work?” Other girls, more fortunate ones, would be home from school in the early afternoon, filling exercise books with the vocabulary words of the day.

“Sundown. Amahle knew the paths over the mountains and she never tarried.” Nomusa lifted her head high now, spurred on by a sudden flash of anger. “This was told to the white policeman on Saturday morning but he did not come! He did not look for her!”

“You reported her missing to the commander at the Roselet Police Station?” Emmanuel asked.

Yebo. Constable Bagley. That very man,” Nomusa said. “He did not care to find my daughter and now the ancestors have taken her.”

“Easy, my sister.” One of the women placed a hand on Nomusa’s shoulder. No good came from criticizing the police.

“What I say is true.” Nomusa shrugged off the hand and leaned in closer to Emmanuel. Rage lit her dark eyes. “The white policeman is a liar. He promised to help but sat on his hands. He cares for no one else’s daughters but his own.”

“Please, sister,” another woman said. “What’s done is done.”

The finality of the woman’s words seemed to drain the anger from Nomusa. Her expression softened and she said to Emmanuel, “From the day my daughter was born her eyes were on the horizon and what was beyond it. I should have kept her by my side but she did not like to be watched over. Now she is gone . . .”

Nomusa covered her face with her hands and began to cry. A woman held her and rocked her like a child as she sobbed. Emmanuel put the notebook away and stood up. Pressing for more information would gain him nothing. Nomusa had become unreachable in her grief.

“Find out who discovered the body and see if the women can help us with a list of people to talk to,” Emmanuel said to Shabalala. “I’ll search the area for a possible murder weapon.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Shabalala shuffled closer to the women and waited patiently for the right moment to speak.

Emmanuel walked away. Grief and despair were part of the job. He was used to it. But there were times, like this one, when the ghosts of the dead from his past tried to break through into daylight instead of waiting for night to fall.

He combed the grass, searching for a knife, a spent bullet casing or a sharpened stick—anything that might have caused the injury to Amahle’s back. He could do nothing for the war dead. This death on a Natal hillside, however, he could do something about.

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