These are the first 3 chapters of Strong Medicine, my debut novel which will be released on June 1st, 2016.
Body parts from corpses serve a valuable purpose, but the best ingredients come from body parts that are harvested while the victim is still alive.
Prof. Jeremy Sharp, Murder for Medicine, 2018
Lindsey had painted dead rabbits on her fingernails. Tiny black and white rabbit heads with crosses for eyes and their tongues sticking out. She sat cross-legged on our bed while the soapies bubbled their way across the TV on the dresser. It had taken her three hours, and seven different nail polish bottles, before she was happy with her handy work.
The grey pre-dawn light and blurry edges of sleep softened the edges of the bunnies. They drifted in and out of focus as sleep relinquished its hold on me.
The bunnies on Lindsey’s nails had started out as regular bunnies with smiley faces, but she was worried her friends would call them lame and tease her. She’d picked up a paintbrush with only a few hairs, and with her tongue sticking from the corner of her mouth, she’d turned the happy bunnies into dead ones.
A pang of regret gripped my heart. My little girl was growing up too fast. She’d be ten years old in a month. She still had a child’s body, long skinny legs, an impish little smile, and the white-blond hair that matched my own. I missed the sweet innocent baby, the sassy toddler. But I loved the cheeky little girl she was growing into.
Lindsey lay on her side facing me with her fingers in front of her mouth. Exactly the way she’d slept as a baby. The blankets rose and fell as she breathed the slow breaths of deep sleep. There was just enough light for me to see the dead rabbits. They were hectic. We’d have to talk about them later. They weren’t suitable for school. She’d spent so long painting them that it would break her heart if I made her clean them off before she got to show her friends.
The first birdsong cut through the cold, silent morning. Only the mossies were too stupid, or too stubborn to stay in their beds until it warmed up a little.
Cocooned in warmth and quiet, it was easy to imagine that it was just Lindsey and me, in our own house. We’d live in a neat three-bedroom cottage on the south coast, with big open windows and waves crashing on the beach outside. Seagulls would wake us, not little brown jobbies.
The dream of our own house faded, leaving hot frustration in my chest. There were five other people in this tiny house. It had been perfect when my father had died. Just big enough for my mom and her two kids. But twenty years had added children and partners, and we were all still stuck in the same house.
Creased sheets twisted between my toes as I tried to soak the last warmth from the bed before getting up. I kissed Lindsey’s cheek, and stroked her hair. Her skin was soft and smooth, her cheeks slightly plump. She was almost as tall as me now, but there was still some softness to her face. It wouldn’t be long before that softness melted away in the furnace of adolescence.
With seven people living in one small house, with one small bathroom, it paid to be the first out of bed in the morning. Lindsey hardly ever got to shower first, but if she woke now she might get to enjoy the best of the warm water, and the fresh bathroom.
My fingers brushed tangled strands of hair from her forehead. “Lindsey, wake up, baby.”
Her eyes flickered open and she smiled a lopsided smile that lifted my heavy mood. “Hi, Ma.”
“Hey baby, you want to shower first?”
She rubbed her eyes and nodded.
“Go on, everyone else is still asleep.”
She slid out from under the covers, shivering as the cold air pried past her thin pyjamas. We padded down the hall to the bathroom and I waited outside the door, listening to the shower splutter and spit into the plastic tub.
The house came to life around me, as it did every morning.
Thomas shuffled down the passage and stood behind me in the queue. “Hey, Erin. Who’s inside?” He ran a hand through the knots in his dark brown hair. Dad’s hair.
“Lindsey got the jump on us this morning.”
He nodded and leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. If he wasn’t standing upright you’d swear he was fast asleep. His face was slack, his mouth open just wide enough that his front teeth gleamed in the half-light.
He roused himself when the bathroom door creaked open. Lindsey emerged, water running from her hair and dripping onto the carpet. She stood on tippy-toes and kissed my cheek, then scampered down the passage to our room.
“Be quick,” Thomas said as I closed the bathroom door behind me.
There was a queue of grumpy faces outside the door by the time I emerged. Thomas and his girlfriend, Sue, passed their toddler between them. He wriggled with excitement and that baby-strength that makes them so difficult to hold on to. My mother, Besta, and her boyfriend, Johan, stood a metre apart. Not talking again. The bathroom door banged shut as Thomas and Sue went in together.
The heat of the shower had fled by the time I dragged a pair of jeans and a bright green vest over my skin. Goosebumps stood out on my skin and only settled once my body heat seeped into the clothes. I combed my hair straight and shoved my feet into two pairs of socks and my trusty sneakers.
Half an hour after we’d gotten out of bed together, Lindsey plopped down at the wonky kitchen table. Coffee rings and dark smudges stained the green linoleum top. Decades of use had left it scuffed and worn down. And the damn thing wobbled no matter how we tried to wedge its legs level. It was as unsteady as a three-legged racehorse. Maybe if Johan didn’t drink so much we’d be able to afford a new one. Maybe if he got a job we could afford a bigger house. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Lindsey’s school uniform was a few sizes too big, the sleeves of her green jersey hung from the ends of her hands. I reached over and rolled them up so that they wouldn’t drag in her breakfast. The dead bunnies on her fingernails emerged from their woolen burrows.
“What’s your teacher going to say about those?” I arched an eyebrow at her nails and dropped a bowl of cornflakes onto the table in front of her. A few drops of milk splashed onto the table.
“She can kiss my butt.” Lindsey grabbed a spoon from the tin in the middle of the table. Her cheeks flushed and she looked at me from under her eyelashes. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t see them.”
It was almost 6:30 already. The look of determined defiance in Lindsey’s serious blue eyes was enough to convince me to put this discussion off. She shouldn’t go to school with her nails like that. I should have said something last night. But she’d already done so much work before she killed them that I didn’t have the heart to make her clean them then.
“I don’t have time for this right now, the nails or the language.” My thumb found the spilled milk on the counter, leaving a milky sheen as I sucked the milk off my finger. “Just don’t let Granny hear you talk like that. She’ll have a heart attack.
“Ja, Ma.” Lindsey shoveled a spoonful of cornflakes into her mouth and licked at a dribble of milk that escaped down her chin.
“Do you have netball today?”
“Ja, the match ends at three. I’ll walk home after.”
“Okay.” I scooped the last of my cornflakes from the bowl and drank the sugary milk. “Clean your nails when you get home.”
“Ja, Ma…” Lindsey’s voice followed me out of the house.
The sun was an angry red welt on the murky horizon. I shaded my eyes and slipped a cigarette between my lips. Crazy Mr Botha was already sweeping the passage outside his apartment. He pushed the evening’s coal dust out beneath the railing; it billowed in a grey cloud before tumbling onto the floor three stories below.
Hot, fragrant cigarette smoke filled my lungs. A pillar of ash tumbled to the concrete balcony, right between Mr Botha’s feet.
“Hai!” His fleshy jowls quivered and his watery eyes bulged.
We did this almost every morning, but this morning there was an extra opportunity to mess with the old man. I winked at him and pointed at the open front of his trousers. “I can see your piel.”
Grumbled cursing followed me all the way down two flights of stairs to the building’s parking lot. The crazy old man would probably still be there, muttering to himself and sweeping the passage, when the sun went down tonight.
My little white Uno stood under an old tree in the parking lot. Bird crap decorated the roof and slid in lumpy white trails down the windscreen. I snubbed my cigarette and dropped the stompie. The door opened with a squeal of protesting hinges and I dropped into the seat.
The engine wheezed when the key turned in the ignition. The car shuddered and clunked and fell silent.
“Come on, old girl.” The accelerator pedal creaked as my foot worked it up and down. The second time I turned the key, the engine choked and spluttered, then shivered to life. The car was almost twenty years old, a hand-me-down from my mother when I’d gotten my first job. The black bumper was almost grey from years spent in the sun. Dents and scratches covered the body. It was a wreck, but it was the only car we had, and it kept going even on cold winter mornings like this one.
Traffic was already backed up all the way past the gate of our complex. I pulled out of the driveway and edged my way into the queue of cars in the street outside. Joburg’s skyscrapers stood shrouded in smog on my left, far away and forlorn in the autumn morning. The city was much prettier in summer, when the thunderstorms kept the air clear and the trees were full of leaves. Now it just looked old and tired, like Mr Botha.
The morning news fought with a harsh static hiss to make it out of the tinny speaker in my door. It was the same old story in Jo’burg. Men killing each other, violent protests over lack of service delivery, and politicians dodging blame for screwing up their portfolios. The final story made my stomach twist. It was about a child’s body that was found discarded in the veld in Soweto. The family asked for privacy at this time.
A shiver ran down my spine, like a moth fluttering against my skin. Lindsey walked to school and back every day. It wasn’t far and she was responsible for her age, but there was always the possibility that something might happen to her.
If I worked closer to home I could drop her at school. If we lived in a nicer neighborhood it wouldn’t be such a problem. There was nothing I could do right now except trust in Lindsey’s common sense and maturity.
I turned off the radio and let the concertina traffic guide me into town. I had a long day of work ahead of me and worrying about things I couldn’t change would only make it longer.
Transcript of Interview
Inmate Number: 7865649
16 September 2005
CMAX Prison, Pretoria
Detective Tshabalala (DT): Thank you for meeting us today, do you mind if we record this conversation? You’ll need to say it out loud for the voice recorder.
Bongani Zulu (BZ): No, I don’t mind.
DT: Thank you. I am detective Malcolm Tshabalala, I’ll be conducting the interview. Please state your name for the record.
Bongani Zulu (BZ): My name is Bongani.
DT: Your full name, please.
BZ: Bongani Zulu.
DT: And your date of birth please.
BZ: 23 March 1962
DT: Good. As I said before, Mr Zulu, we need to ask you some questions about your business dealings with a man who calls himself ‘Makulu’. Do you know this man?
BZ: No. I don’t know who you mean.
DT: Mr Zulu, it’s too late to deny things we already know are true. You’re in the most secure prison in the country, and you will spend a long time here. You won’t see the sun. You won’t see your family until your children are adults and have children of their own. Unless you cooperate with us, You’ll die before you ever meet your grandchildren.
BZ: I don’t know him. I just worked for him sometimes.
DT: What did you do for him? What did you do, Mr Zulu?
BZ: Nothing important. Errands and things. Going to the bank.
DT: Now, you see what you just did there, with your eyes? The way you looked away from me when you answered. You’re lying, Mr Zulu. What did you do?
BZ: I said I did odd jobs for him. That’s what I did. Sometimes I fetched his groceries, sometimes I helped him in the garden.
DT: I find that impossible to believe, Mr Zulu. You’re in here for kidnapping. Makulu is known to traffic in body parts. Why don’t you tell us the truth? Get it off your chest. You’re going to be in here for a long time, I can help make things easier on you.
BZ: You say you can help me? He can kill me in here!
DT: Please calm down, Mr Zulu. He can’t get you in here. This is CMAX. Did you help Makulu kidnap people?
DT: Did you kill for him, Mr Zulu? Did you take people’s body parts for muti? Did you kill children for him?
BZ: Fuck you!
It was almost six o’clock when I got home. The sun was, once again, low on the horizon. I’d lost another day to cars and smog and my boss’s wandering eye and roving hands. Steven had started flirting with me from the day we had our first interview. He was kinda cute for an older guy, but I didn’t want to think about him like that. I got the job, and I’d barely signed the contract when he propositioned me. As long as Lindsey doesn’t know about it, I don’t feel too bad.
I turned the handle on the front door of our house and stepped into chaos. Peter, my two year-old nephew, was screaming at the top of his lungs. His voice cut clear through the curtain that divided the lounge from the rest of the house. My mother and her boyfriend were arguing about something in the kitchen, probably booze. Above it all hung the smell of something burning. I left the door open so that the house could air out.
We’d moved into the double-storey flat when I was seven years old and my father had passed away in a mining accident. He’d gone down a shaft to inspect the equipment at a platinum mine out near Hartbeestpoort when a section of the mine collapsed. My father had been among twenty-seven people killed that day. My mother used the insurance payout to buy this smaller house. We had been living here for the past twenty-five years.
I’d escaped for a few wonderful years when I lived with Lindsey’s father. I fell pregnant and we moved into a little two-bedroom flat over in Edenvale. The flat wedged between a KFC and a nightclub that blasted heavy metal all weekend. We were happy. I’d never had so much space before, not to myself anyway. Then Lindsey came along and he started drinking. Then he didn’t come home at night, and when he did he smelled of perfume and cigarettes, even though he didn’t smoke. It was more than I could handle. Looking after the baby, Lindsey, all day long, cooped up in that little house alone with an infant.
It wasn’t long before I fell into a deep depression and everything was too much for me to cope with. Housework, cooking, Patrick’s demands for sex. Except Lindsey. She was my rock, my anchor, the bright point in my day that kept me alive.
When Patrick didn’t come home for a whole weekend, I lost my shit. Threw all our plates and glasses out the window and watched them smash in the street. I cut up all his clothes and burned all the photos of us. Then I had packed Lindsey’s clothes and toys into one small suitcase, packed my few things into another and moved back in with my mom. Lindsey was barely a year old.
It took me ages to adapt to the cramped space again. And things only got worse when my brother and his girlfriend moved in. We were still there, living in my childhood bedroom.
The room was dark and empty when I got up stairs. I flicked on the light switch and the weak bulb lit up overhead. There were no wrinkles in the blanket on our bed and the pillows were still plump. There was no school uniform in a heap on the floor, no book bag under the little plywood desk in the corner. I checked under the bed and in the closet. Nothing. Maybe she had left her bags in the kitchen.
I thumped down the stairs two at a time, away from the calm of my room and back into the clamor of the household. Thomas was shouting at his girlfriend above the sound of Petey’s wailing. I could still hear my mother’s self-righteous voice in the kitchen.
Six bowls formed a neat line on the counter. My mother had her back to the door. Her broad hips jiggled as she filled each bowl with something brown and lumpy from a stainless steel pot. Smoke hung in the air above her head like a winter mist. A pot of rice smoldered on the drying rack next to the sink. At least that solved the mystery of the smoke. The thin lace curtains danced in the open windows. Fresh air gradually replaced the smoke.
Johan, my mother’s boyfriend, sat at the table with a Black Label in one hand and a belligerent expression on his narrow face. He always got mean when he drank beer. The cheaper the brand, the meaner he got. This was not going to be an easy night for my mother.
“Have you seen Lindsey?” I asked as I walked into the room.
My mother turned around and smiled at me. Johan leered.
“Just in time for dinner,” my mother said with a rubbery smile that was the first sign she’d already had too much to drink.
“Ma, have you seen Lindsey? Did she come home from school?”
“And you?” I glared at Johan. He shook his bald head and sipped his beer.
I went over to the lounge and dragged the curtain aside.
“Can’t we get any privacy?” Thomas said as I strode into the cluttered mess that was his home. He threw his hands in the air and pulled at his hair. When Sue fell pregnant she’d moved into the house to live with Tommy. They’d taken the couches out of the lounge and replaced them with a double bed and a cot. Two chests of drawers dominated one wall. But there were so many dirty clothes strewn through the room that I’m sure those chests were empty.
“Have you seen Lindsey today?” I asked.
“Not since this morning.” Thomas shook his head, his too-long hair flopping over his ears as he did.
“Erin, Erin…” Petey walked up to me and held out his hands, asking me to pick him up. I ignored him, looked down at my watch: 18:15. My pulse throbbed in my neck.
No, no, no! This can’t be happening. I put my hand on the wall to steady myself.
“She should have been home three hours ago.” I said.
“Maybe she’s just late?” Thomas said. He scooped Petey up and kissed the boy’s soft cheeks, like he was rubbing his child’s presence in my face.
“She’s never late!” I couldn’t keep the panic out of my voice.
It was unfair, I shouldn’t have shouted at him. Petey’s little face scrunched up and his cheeks turned bright red. He was about to cry. My throat constricted and I sucked a deep breath in through gritted teeth.
“I should do something, call her friends.” I shoved the curtain aside and left Thomas with a sobbing toddler in his arms.
My stomach churned as I headed up to my room to fetch Lindsey’s phone book. Lindsey was always home on time from netball, but it was possible that she’d gone home with a friend and forgotten to tell us. I’d phone around, find her, and she’d be back here in an hour eating dinner at the wobbly kitchen table.
I’d have to make sure she didn’t do this again. I’d drill it into her that she must always let me know where she’s going.
I opened the drawer on my bedside table and dug through the old bills and dead batteries until I found the little pink telephone book. It was a gift from Besta two Christmases ago. Lindsey thought it was kinda lame, her words, but she’d filled it in to make my mother happy. I breathed a sigh of relief that she had. I thumbed the book open and dialed the first number. There weren’t many names in the book, this shouldn’t take long.
If she had her own cell phone I could just call that, maybe it was time to get her one. I’d have to talk to her about it when she got home.
Well, that’s the way it begins, if you’d like to read more (as I sincerely hope you do), you can pick up a copy of Strong Medicine on Amazon (paperback link will be available from 1 June).