DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA, MAY 28, 1953
THE ENTRANCE TO the freight yards was a dark mouth crowded with rows of dirty boxcars and threads of silver track. A few white prostitutes orbited a weak streetlight. Indian and coloured working girls were tucked into the shadows, away from the passing trade and the police.
Emmanuel Cooper crossed Point Road and moved toward the yards. The prostitutes stared at him, and the boldest of them, a fat redhead with a molting fox fur slung around her shoulders, lifted a skirt to expose a thigh encased in black fishnet.
“Sweetheart,” she bellowed. “Are you buying or just window-shopping?”
Emmanuel slipped into the industrial maze. Did he look that desperate? Brine and coal dust blew off Durban Harbor and the lights of a docked cruise ship shone across the water. Stationary gantry cranes loomed over the avenue of boxcars and a bright half-moon lit the rocky ground. He moved to the center of the yards, tracing a now familiar path. He was tired, and not from the late hour. Trawling the docks after midnight was worse than being a foot policeman. They at least had a clearly defined mission: to enforce the law. His job was to witness a mind-numbing parade of petty violence, prostitution and thievery and do nothing.
He scrambled over a heavy coupling and settled into a space between two wagons. Soon, an ant trail of trucks would roll out of the yard, packed to the limit with whiskey and cut tobacco and boxes of eau de cologne. English, Afrikaner, foot police, detectives and railway police: the smuggling operation was a perfect example of how different branches of the force were able to cooperate and coordinate if they shared a common goal.
He flicked the surveillance notebook open. Four columns filled the faintly ruled paper: names, times, license plate numbers and descriptions of stolen goods. Until these cold nights in the freight yard he’d thought the wait for the Normandy landing was the pinnacle of boredom. The restlessness and the fear of the massed army, the bland food and the stink of the latrines: he’d weathered it all without complaint. The discomforts weren’t so different from what he’d experienced in the tin and concrete slum shacks his family had lived in on the outskirts of Jo’burg.
This surveillance of corrupt policemen lacked the moral certainty of D-day. What Major van Niekerk, his old boss from the Marshall Square Detective Branch, planned to do with the information in the notebook was unclear.
“Jesus. Oh, Jesus …” A groaned exhalation floated across the freight yards, faint on the breeze. Some of the cheaper sugar girls made use of the deserted boxcars come nightfall.
“Oh … no …” This time the male voice was loud and panicked.
The skin on Emmanuel’s neck prickled. The urge to investigate reared up, but he resisted. His job was to watch and record the activities of the smuggling ring, not rescue a drunken whaler lost in the freight yard. Do not get involved. Major van Niekerk had been very specific about that.
The faint hum of traffic along Point Road mingled with a wordless sobbing. Instinct pulled Emmanuel to the sound. He hesitated and then shoved the notepad into a pants pocket. Ten minutes to take a look and then he’d be back to record the truck license plate numbers. Twenty minutes at the outside. He pulled a silver torch from a pocket, switched it on and ran toward the warehouses built along the northeast boundary of the freight terminus.
The sobs faded and then became muffled. Possibly the result of a hand held over a mouth. Emmanuel stopped and tried to isolate the sound. The yards were huge, with miles of track running the length of the working harbor. Loose gravel moved underfoot and a cry came from ahead. Emmanuel turned the torch to high beam and picked up the pace. The world appeared in flashes. Ghostly rows of stationary freight cars, chains, redbrick walls covered in grime and a back lane littered with empty hessian sacks. Then a dark river of blood that formed a question mark in the dirt.
Emmanuel swung the torch beam in the direction of the voice and caught two Indian men in the full glare of the light. Both were young, with dark, slicked-back hair that touched their shoulders. They wore white silk shirts and nearly identical suits made from silvery sharkskin material. One, a slim teenager with a tear-streaked face, was slumped against the back wall of the warehouse. The other, somewhere in his early twenties, sported an Errol Flynn mustache and a heavy brow contracted with menace. He hunched over the boy, with his hand over his mouth to keep him quiet.
“Do not move.” Emmanuel used his detective sergeant’s voice. He reached for his .38 standard Webley revolver and touched an empty space–like a war veteran fumbling for a phantom limb. The most dangerous weapon he had was a pen. No matter. The gun was backup.
“Run!” the older one screamed. “Go!”
The men ran in different directions and Emmanuel targeted the smaller of the two, who stumbled and pitched toward the ground. Emmanuel caught a sleeve and steadied the teenager against the wall.
“Run again and I’ll break your arm,” he said. A coupling clanked. The older one was still out there somewhere. Emmanuel rested shoulder to shoulder with the boy and waited.
“Parthiv.” The boy sniffled. “Don’t leave me.”
“Amal,” a voice called back. “Where are you?”
“Here. He got me.”
“I’ve got Amal,” Emmanuel said. “You’d better come out and keep him company.”
The man emerged from the dark with a gangster swagger. A gold necklace complemented his silvery suit, and a filigree ring topped with a chunk of purple topaz weighed down his index finger.
“And just who the hell are you?” the skollie demanded.
Emmanuel relaxed. He’d put down thugs like this one on a daily basis back in Jo’burg. Back before the trouble in Jacob’s Rest.
“I’m Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper,” he said.
With the National Party now in control, the police had become the most powerful gang in South Africa. The air went out of the Indian’s hard-man act.
“Names,” Emmanuel said when the men were against the wall. He’d deal with the fact that he had no authority and no jurisdiction later.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the Indian Errol Flynn said. He looked tough and he talked tough but something about the flashy suit and the jewelry made him look a little … soft.
“Names,” Emmanuel repeated.
“Amal,” the youngster said quickly. “My name is Amal Dutta and that’s my brother, Parthiv Dutta.”
“Stay put,” Emmanuel instructed, and dipped the torchlight toward the ground. A bottle of lemonade lay on its side near the pool of blood. Then, in the shadows, Emmanuel made out the curled fingers of a child’s hand. They seemed almost to motion him closer. A white boy lay in the dirt, arms outstretched, skinny legs tangled together. His throat was sliced open from ear to ear like a second mouth.
Emmanuel recognized the victim: an English slum kid, around eleven years old, who picked a living among the boxcars and the whores. Jolly Marks. Who knew if that was his real name?
Starting at the tattered canvas shoes, Emmanuel searched upward over the body. Army-issue fatigues were rolled up at the cuffs and threadbare at the knees. A line of string was tied to the belt loop of the khaki pants and a smear of blood stained the waistband. Streaks of dirt fanned out across the boy’s gray shirt and gathered in the creases around his mouth. The search revealed the lack of something in every detail. The lack of money evident in Jolly’s shabby clothes. The lack of hygiene in the tangled hair and filthy nails. The lack of a parent who might stop a young boy from going out onto the Durban docks after dark.
Emmanuel focused the light on the stained waistband again. Jolly Marks always had a small notebook attached to the belt loop of the khaki pants, where he wrote orders for smokes and food. The string that held the book was still there, but the book itself was missing. That fact might be significant.
“Did either of you pick up a spiral notebook with a string attached?” he said.
“No,” the brothers answered simultaneously.
Emmanuel crouched next to the body. An inch from Jolly’s right hand was a rusty penknife with the small blade extended. Emmanuel had owned a similar knife at almost exactly the same age. Jolly had understood that bad things happened out here at night.
Emmanuel knew this boy, knew the details of his life without having to ask a single question. He’d grown up with boys like Jolly Marks. No, that was a lie. This was whom he’d grown up as. A dirty white boy. This could have been his fate: first on the streets of a Jo’burg slum and then on the battlefields in Europe. He had escaped and survived. Jolly would never have that chance. Emmanuel returned to the Indian men.
“Either one of you touch this boy?”
“Never.” Amal’s body shook with the denial. “Never, never ever.”
“You?” Emmanuel asked Parthiv.
“No. No ways. We were minding our own business and there he was.”
Nobody in the back lanes of the Durban port after midnight was minding his own business unless that business was illegal. There was, however, a big difference between stealing and murder, and the brothers’ sharkskin suits were pressed and clean. Emmanuel checked their hands, also clean. Jolly lay in a bloodbath, his neck cut with a single stroke: the work of an experienced butcher.
“Have either of you seen the boy before, maybe talked to him?”
“No,” Parthiv said, too quickly. “Don’t know him.”
“I wish I’d never seen him.” Amal’s voice broke on the words. “I wish I’d stayed at home.”
Emmanuel tilted the torch beam away from the teenager’s face. Violent death was shocking, but the violent death of a child was different; the effects sank deeper and lingered longer. Amal was only a few years older than Jolly and probably still a schoolboy.
“Sit down and rest against the wall,” Emmanuel said.
Amal sank to the ground and sucked breath in through an open mouth. A panic attack was in the cards. “Are you going to … to … arrest us, Detective?”
Emmanuel pulled a small flask from a jacket pocket and unscrewed the lid. He handed it to Amal, who pulled back.
“I don’t drink. My mother says it makes you stupid.”
“Make an exception for tonight,” Emmanuel said. “It’s mostly coffee anyway.”
The teenager took a slurp and coughed till fat tears spilled from his eyes. Parthiv gave a derisive snort, embarrassed by his younger brother’s inability to hold liquor. Emmanuel pocketed the flask and checked the narrow alley between the warehouse wall and the goods train.
He had a body in the open, no murder weapon and two witnesses who, in all probability, had stumbled onto the crime scene. This was a detective’s nightmare–but also a detective’s dream. The scene was all his. There were no foot police to trample evidence into the mud and no senior detectives jockeying for control of the investigation. Clumps of vegetation embedded in the gravel shuddered in a sudden breeze. Beyond Jolly’s body, the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette blew on the ground. Emmanuel picked it up and smelled it–vanilla and chocolate. It was a special blend of flavored tobacco.
“You smoke, Parthiv?” Emmanuel asked over his shoulder.
“Old Gold. They’re American.”
“I know them,” Emmanuel said. Half the Yank army had puffed their way across Europe on Old Gold and Camel. For a few years it seemed that the smell of freedom was American tobacco and corned beef. Old Gold was a mass-market cigarette imported into South Africa. The vanilla and chocolate tobacco was probably made to order.
“What about you, Amal … do you smoke?”
“Not even a puff after school?”
“Only once. I didn’t like it. It hurt my lungs.”
Parthiv snorted again.
Emmanuel shone the beam on Jolly’s hands and face. Amal looked away. There were no defense wounds on the boy’s hands despite the open penknife. The killer had worked fast and with maximum efficiency. Maybe it was the night chill that made the murder read cold and dispassionate. The word professional came to Emmanuel’s mind.
This was hardly a description that fit either one of the Dutta boys. He played the torchlight over the rough ground again, looking for hard evidence. Jolly’s order book was nowhere near the body.
A coupling creaked in the darkness. Parthiv and Amal focused on an object in the gloom of the freight yard behind him. Emmanuel swiveled and a black hole opened up and swallowed him.
© 2010 Malla Nunn