Fiction Friday | ‘Facets of Death’ by Michael Stanley
Detective Kubu’s first case may also be his last…
Recruited straight from university to Botswana’s CID, David “Kubu” Bengu has raised his colleagues’ suspicions with his meteoric rise within the department, and he has a lot to prove.
When the richest diamond mine in the world is robbed of 100,000 carats worth of gems, and then the thieves are killed, execution-style, Kubu leaps at the chance to prove himself. But where are the diamonds? And what role does a witch doctor and his son play?
Does this young detective have the skill – and integrity – to engineer an international trap? Or could it cost him everything, including his life?
A riveting, chilling prequel to the award-winning Detective Kubu series, Facets of Death introduces the beloved Kubu and his richly described native Botswana, in a dark, sophisticated thriller that will leave you breathless.
The leader of the robbers and his men sat in the shade of a jackalberry tree near the ramshackle house. Even there, they suffered from the heat. A breeze that should have cooled them lifted heat from the ground and enveloped them. They sweated profusely and grew grumpy.
The contrast between the adrenaline of the previous day and the nothingness of sitting around waiting eventually got to the leader. He wanted to get going, to get away from the danger of the Botswana police, who were searching everywhere for him and his men. He knew it was dangerous to cross the border into South Africa during the day. They’d seen helicopters flying low over the border fence. But the thought of doing nothing for the many hours until dark was more than he could handle.
He jumped up and looked at his men. ‘We’ve got to get going. The police will find us here. People will have seen us drive through the village.’
He strode over to the house and banged on the door. ‘Ngaka, we must leave now,’ he shouted. ‘It’s too dangerous to stay.’
The door opened, and the doctor and his son walked out.
‘Ngaka—’ The leader addressed the older man, but Vusi interrupted.
‘You will leave when I tell you!’
The leader took a step back, seeing raw anger in Vusi’s eyes.
The doctor lifted his hands to the sky. ‘My friend, listen to my son. I see great danger if you leave now. You must wait until he says you can go.’
The leader felt anger welling up. ‘It is our lives that are in danger, Ngaka. Not yours or your son’s. We can see dangers better in daylight than at night. We’re well armed and well prepared. We will go now. Your diamonds will be safer with us in South Africa than here.’
‘The spirits have told me that you will be safe if you leave tonight.’
‘Ngaka, the spirits don’t have to face the police or maybe even the army.’
‘You will not reach the border if you leave now.’ The leader could barely hear what Vusi said, but he took another step back. ‘The diamonds are ours. The money is ours. You will do as I say. You will leave after supper, when I say. Not before. Not after. Tell your men to be patient, for their reward is great. Go.’
With that Vusi turned and stalked back into the house.
The doctor turned also, then stopped at the door and spoke to the leader. ‘Do as my son says. He is wise and knows what is best for you.’
The leader walked back to his men.
Maybe I’ve had this wrong, he pondered. I thought the doctor was in charge, but maybe it’s really his son.
That night, the leader and his men ate dikgobe prepared by the woman who served the doctor and the man he called his son. They rolled the cracked maize into balls with their fingers and used it to mop up sauce. And there was Shake Shake sorghum beer again to wash down the dryness.
At 8:30, the doctor rose from the table and addressed the leader of the robbers. ‘You need to go. It is the right time now.’
This time no-one questioned his decision. He went into the back of his house and returned with Vusi, who was carrying the Debswana transport box. It was now wrapped in sacking, and a strange, pungent aroma came from it. Two of the men jumped up and moved back. The doctor looked at them and nodded.
‘There is powerful muti here. It will keep you safe. You need fear nothing. But you must not open the covering. If you do, it will turn on you. It will…’ He shook his head. ‘Do not open it. I have warned you. I will not speak of it again.’ He turned to the leader. ‘Hide it under the animal skins you will find at your vehicle. If you are stopped, say you are bringing the hides to sell. Now you will follow my son from this place to the border.’
He turned and walked away without a word of farewell.
The leader shrugged. He didn’t like the doctor or whatever nastiness he’d added to the box of diamonds, but they’d been paid. He was happy to leave Botswana.
Vusi carried the box to their SUV and shoved it against the back seat. Then he waited until the leader’s men had loaded the goat skins and wild-animal skins, filling the back section of the vehicle almost to the roof. Their tannic smell covered up the unpleasant one coming from the box. Once all was ready, he walked over to a rusty bakkie and climbed into the cab. It coughed a few times before it started, and then they headed back towards the main road in convoy.
The moon was in the last quarter and wouldn’t be up until later. All the leader could see in their headlights was the dust of the bakkie in front of them. Should they be stopped for smuggling the hides across the border, a healthy bribe should see them on their way, but he kept their weapons available in case. He wasn’t sure how much faith he had in the doctor’s powerful medicine, but he knew none of them would touch the box until they delivered it in Johannesburg.
The roads became farm tracks servicing the fields, and then bush tracks through the acacia scrub. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained much that summer or the track would be impassable, even for a four-by-four. After a while, they came to the border fence. There was a service track running along it on the Botswana side, and the vegetation had been cleared for about five metres from the fence on both sides. For the first time, the leader felt exposed, recalling the patrolling helicopters they’d heard from the witch doctor’s house during the day. But there was no sound of them now, nor any searching lights.
They followed the border track for some way. Suddenly, the bakkie ahead of them pulled over and swung round to pick up the fence in its headlights. Leaving the lights on, Vusi climbed out and walked up to one of the sections.
From a distance, this section of the fence looked the same as all the others – about two metres high with coiled barbed wire at the top – but close-up one could see that at one point there were two fence posts instead of just one. He unlinked them, and then pulled one section back, opening a gap through the fence below the barbed-wire coil. He signalled to the leader to drive up.
He pointed to tyre tracks heading into the bush. ‘Go through there. You’ll find a track just beyond those bushes. Turn right and head south for about a kilometre. Watch for a track on your left. After that keep heading east. It will take you to the Lobatla road.’
‘If there is a fork?’ No bush tracks were direct.
‘It doesn’t matter. They all go to the main road eventually.’
The leader nodded. They would probably take a few wrong turns, but they had plenty of time. At least they would be across the border, out of Botswana. He doubted the South African police would be as excited by Debswana’s problems as the Botswana police were. He thanked the man, and they drove through the gap in the fence. The doctor’s son carefully replaced the loose fence section behind them.
The robbers moved at a snail’s pace, following the tracks of another vehicle that had crossed the border illegally for reasons of its own. As the witch doctor’s son had promised, very soon they came to a track.
Although he had no reason to be, the leader was uncomfortable. Everything had gone smoothly, exactly as they’d planned. Except what they were doing now. Creeping back into South Africa with the diamonds had not been part of the plan.
He told the driver to stop, and the vehicle came to a halt. The leader climbed out and stood alone, listening. The only sounds were those of the nightjars and the cicadas. He felt there should be something else but couldn’t put his finger on it. Something wasn’t right, but he didn’t know what. He waited a couple of minutes, feeling foolish, then shrugged. He got back into the vehicle and told the driver to go on. But the discomfort remained.
After half a kilometre, they came to a drift across a dry river course. It was quite deep, and the driver had to ease down into it in low-range gear.
Suddenly, they saw flashes and heard the crackling of automatic rifle fire. Two bright lights pinned them from ahead. The windscreen shattered, and the engine cut out. With a yell, the leader ducked down and grabbed an AK-47.
His mind was in turmoil. Who could be shooting at them, and why?
The men in the seat behind were firing back at the flashes in the darkness. One managed to take out one of the spotlights.
‘Fuck, get us out of here!’ he screamed at the driver. There was no response. The man was slumped over the steering wheel.
‘Fuck!’ He leant across and opened the driver door. Pushing the man out of the vehicle, he clambered over and tried to restart the engine, keeping his head down. It turned over but wouldn’t catch. Something was broken. Another burst of gunfire – behind them this time.
‘Fuck! We’re surrounded. We’ve got to get out of here.’ He tried the engine again with the same result.
One of his men tried to escape into the bush, where at least he’d be less visible. He fired a long burst, then flung open his door, rolled out onto the ground clutching his rifle, and tried to scramble behind some acacia shrubs. Then the spotlight found him, followed by a volley of bullets.
He screamed, and the leader watched his body jerk and contort.
Another burst of gunfire came from behind, and the man behind him screamed.
The leader realised he was on his own. The others were dead. There was no hope of escape. But he still had the money, carefully hidden in the seat padding.
Maybe I can use that to negotiate, he thought.
More bursts of gunfire raked the vehicle from both sides as he cowered.
‘All right!’ he shouted into the night. ‘I give up.’
He threw out one of the guns so that it landed in the beam of light. The firing stopped.
‘Police! Come out with your hands up,’ a voice shouted in Setswana.
‘All right, brother, I’m coming. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.’
Carefully he opened the door and eased himself out, keeping his hands in the air.
The spotlight picked him out. There was a burst of gunfire, and he slumped into the dust of the track.
Vusi waited at the fence border crossing and smoked. When he heard the sound of automatic fire in the distance and then, after a few minutes, the silence return, he flicked his cigarette into the sand and climbed back into the driver’s seat. With the engine still warm, the bakkie started at once. He made a U-turn and headed back into the bush.
- Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers