The JRB presents an excerpt from Elton Baatjies, the debut novel from Lester Walbrugh, out this month from Karavan Press.
Karavan Press, 2022
Read the excerpt:
The wind came screeching from the sea, raced up and down the streets, and shook roofs as if in play. It blew the sand in through the tightest door—Detective Junaid Japhta will grind it under his shoe when he enters the house.
His shirt is soaked through. His bulletproof vest pinches. With a handkerchief drawn from a back pocket Junaid wipes the sweat from his brow. Detective Japhta, he tells himself, you can do this. He takes in the exterior of the two-bedroom house: no garden, a wooden fence gapped like a mouth missing teeth, dirt-pink walls, an asbestos roof, a weathered front door with two windows on either side of it, curtains drawn.
As Junaid makes his way to the house, a woman from the crowd in the street, with her jersey stretched thinly over her bosom and a face as grey as the planks that make up what is left of the fence, is saying, ‘Hai shame, foeitog, arme vrou.’ With a broken fence on either side of it, there is no practical use for the gate, but an old habit has Junaid returning the gate to its position and flipping its wire circle over the wooden post.
The house has kept the cold of the night. Beneath the print of a teary boy with neatly combed hair, a woman on a couch is sobbing into a tissue. Junaid makes way for a policeman leaving.
‘Japhta!’ It is his superior, Captain Xolile. The shout is from the room in the back. There are Manchester United and Stormers stickers on the bedroom door, a dagga leaf decal in the centre. Junaid and his brother had decorated their door in the same way, then one day when they returned from school, they found the whole door flung on top of the garbage. Their father said if they wanted a new door they could get one with their own money.
Captain Xolile is huddled over the bed, scribbling in his notepad. Junaid is tempted to observe from the hallway. He jumps when the Captain grunts another ‘Japhta!’
The bed takes up most of the space. A crack in the window to the backyard flashes as Junaid enters. The boy is on the bed, legs splayed. One arm frames his head, the other hangs off the side. Blood has dried on the tip of a finger.
‘It was the father. He’s out back. Gutted himself.’
‘The boy stole a phone. To sell for tik. Neighbour’s phone.’
Junaid steps up to the bed. The slap of the rubber glove stings his palm. Thirteen. Fourteen. They get younger by the day, he thinks. He avoids looking at the boy’s face. It would be the face of his nephew, or one of his friends’ sons, or the dead face of the boy down the road, kicking a soccer ball against the wall.
The body is too small—it barely lifts the t-shirt. The jeans are tattered. A sock struggles up an ankle.
‘Probable cause of death?’ Junaid asks. He needs the windows thrown open; he wants the roof, this shoebox lid, lifted to let in sun and air, and rain.
‘Going by the state of the bed, he bled to death.’
Five thrusts of the knife took the boy. It silenced the tik monster, but also everything else about him.
Derra! Dit wassie ekkie!
Jou dônner, dan lieg jy nog vi my!
Jy kan ma jou bek hou, jou ma issie hie nie.
People heard the boy scream, but said it was the wind, and shut their windows tighter so the sand wouldn’t get in.
The mother is a private carer in Plattekloof and returned at dawn after a week-long shift. She knew immediately, she says, from the smell, when she stepped through the front door. She found him on his bed, clasped him to her breast, stroked his head and his face. She tried to wake him, called his name, and cursed the Lord, ‘Nee, Here, my God. Hoe kan U?’ In the bedroom doorway she tripped over the bag of groceries she had dropped. She stumbled through the kitchen, with her shoulder rammed the door, and pushed aside her dead husband who sat there on the top step holding his guts in his lap. The knife lay in the sand.
Junaid returns to the police station with Captain Xolile, but before they get into the car, he takes a look at the crowd outside and goes up to the photographer. ‘Do me a favour and take a few photos of the crowd here too? Might be useful.’ Then, walking back to the car, Junaid shakes his head. There is no need for crowd photos here. The case was clear-cut. The habit of asking the crime photographer for photos is one he has acquired since they found that first body, two years ago, the one they learned was Luciano Meyer, fourteen, from Eersterivier.
‘Thought it was him when I got the call,’ Captain Xolile says back in the car.
‘Me too. Victim profile fits.’
Junaid looks over at the Captain. His round head houses eyes that hold little evidence of what they have witnessed during his career. Junaid has learnt much from him.
They park at the back of the compound, and as a raincloud sucks all the blue from the sky, they step into the red brick building.
In this anonymity they are able to be themselves, shadows and all, even if only for a few minutes in the day.
The Cape Peninsula carries secrets known only to the wind, the fynbos, and the creatures that live there. Six teenage boys are found raped, murdered, and dumped down the side of its mountains.
It is two years since the discovery of the first body and Detective Junaid Japtha is no closer to cracking the case. With pressure mounting, and without any tangible evidence, he can only rely on his experience and instinct to track down the killer.
Fifteen-year-old Tyrone May from Macassar spends his days in limbo. He has no one to talk to. No one listens. He is curious and confused about his feelings. Like most boys, he has yet to develop a sense of his own mortality. It allows for a daring that will dissipate as he grows older, but, for now, Tyrone will accept the friend request a handsome stranger sends him.
Elton Baatjies is the newly appointed teacher at a local high school. These are his people, and he is soon embraced by the close-knit community. But he is tied to the six dead boys in ways no one could have predicted, and the secrets among them threaten to tear the sleepy mountain town apart.