Katie Malone grabs the blanket that was thrown at her, killing the automatic impulse to say thank you. Even before the door slams shut again, she’s gathered the blanket around her shivering body, tucking in a bit below her to fashion a crude cushion.
The drugs have started wearing off but the headache is the worst she’s ever had. The one word loops around in her mind all the time: Why?
By now she’s calmed down somewhat and started piecing the puzzle together. She’s a lone traveller in a foreign country. Did the man in the Customs booth have anything to do with this? No matter, she was stupid to follow that guy with the Passenger Services nametag. And…quite obviously…she’s been abducted for some horrible reason.
Her first fear had been that they – whoever they are – wanted to molest her. Apparently not – or they’re not in a hurry to do so. Anyway, they seem to have taken care that she came to no great harm, which is why she had that caretaker in the beginning. And then that…that terrifying photo-session.
There can only be two reasons: kidnapping for ransom – or abduction for an even more ominous reason. The ransom-idea doesn’t make sense at all; her family aren’t that important, are they? But abduction…and she’s read about human trafficking, of course…and that only happens to other people, for goodness sakes!
Think, Katie, think!
The door opens again, this time admitting the ‘caretaker’ woman who kept her company in the beginning.
“Time for your medicine, sweetie. Come on now, be a good girl?”
To argue would be senseless – another beating will follow.. Katie holds out her hand to receive the four pills. Popping them into her mouth, she accepts the glass of water and drinks deeply.
“Now that was really good. Sleep well, my lovely.”
When the door clicks shut, Katie fishes the pills out from below her tongue. For a second – just a second – she allows a cold anger to wash through her mind. Then, in a helpless gesture of defiance, she throws the pills as hard as she can against the far wall.
“This is it,” Gertruida whispers as she points to the name below the doorbell. “Manie Schoeman.“
They travelled from the airport in Gertjie’s minibus, making record time as the Obelix-like figure of the driver sped through the backstreets, avoiding the traffic. They have no real plan: anything this Schoeman can tell them, might point them in some sort of direction.
It’s only after the third – rather long – ring that the door opens. Manie Schoeman, dishevelled and dressed in only his boxers, peers at them with sleepy eyes.
“What the hell do you want? I’ve just come from nightshift, dammit! I swear, if you guys are from the Jehovah’s again, I’ll call the bloody police.”
“Mister Schoeman, we’re not trying to convince you to go to heaven. We’re trying to save a girl from going to hell. May we come in for a minute?” Gertruida’s tone is friendly but firm, allowing Manie no excuse to close his door.
The interior of the flat (it’s more like a penthouse) creates the impression of understated luxury. The state-of-the-art Marantz music centre catches Fanny’s eye immediately, while Vetfaan notices the neat and well-stocked bar. The one wall is almost completely hidden behind the shelves of DVD’s.
“What is this about?” Manie sits down wearily on one of the plush easy chairs, rubs his eyes and yawns.
“My, my…” Gertruida walks over to a painting. “Is that a Tretchikoff?”
“What. Do. You. Want?”
“”Okay, I’ll get right to the point. You are, as far as we know, the last person to have seen a certain Miss Katie Malone, passenger on the BOAC flight from London yesterday. You stamped her passport. We’d like to know if you can tell us anything about her?”
“I stamp passports, Lady, I’m not paid to remember faces and names.”
Gertruida is taken aback by the man’s attitude. He doesn’t ask why they want to know, whether they’re investigating a murder or something, or even what Katie looked like. She glances over at Gertjie, who returns an imperceptible nod.
“Listen,” the fat man wheezes, “we’re not here to cause trouble. We’re just a bunch of friends looking for somebody.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of innocence. “Come on, buddy, help us out here. You want to go back to sleep and we want to be out of here. Now think…can you remember this woman?” He holds out the photograph Fanny gave him.
The old Gertjie magic…Gertruida hides a smile. Gertjie can make a brick talk by being sweet.
Manie studies the photograph for a second. Vetfaan, standing to one side, sees the pulse quicken in the man’s neck.
“Yeah…yeah. I suppose I stamped her passport. But that’s all. We don’t go in for lengthy conversations with travellers. So that’s all I know.”
People often assume the inhabitants of Rolbos are a bit backward – even stupid. City-folk like to judge people by the way the dress, the way the talk and the way they act. Then, also, the impression of the way the hair is done, or the nails are painted, play a major role in deciding whether an individual is worthy of your respect.
One can understand why Mister Manie Jakobus Schoeman dismissed the four people in his sumptuous lounge as being…let’s say…artless or clueless or dense or even dumb. After all, he is used to the upper echelons of society who travel the world in their wild chase for money, power or pleasure. Now, confronted by Vetfaan (ancient boots, khaki pants, old shirt), Gertruida (wild hair, glasses, unpainted nails), Fanny (plain PEP-store jeans, plastic sandals and a white T-shirt) and Gertjie (basically a blob of fat covered with liver spots), Manie is ready to show them the door.
But…one must never ignore the value of critical observation. This is a natural instinct that develops in people who live in the Kalahari – they learn to observe man and animal with equal care. When one lives a lonely and isolated life, interacting with other living beings becomes an expression of respect – and survival. The smooth forehead of yesterday may have a little frown today. The happy smile may be a bit forced. An unexpected sigh tells a story. When one lives in harmony with your surroundings, these signs often determine the conversation to follow.
People living in wide open spaces also learn to be acutely aware of their surroundings. The veld, the sky, the weather, the way animals react to your and each other’s presence – these are but a few signals that get analysed constantly. It is no wonder then, that the visitors to Manie’s penthouse looked at the man, looked at his surroundings, and decided something didn’t quite fit in with the lifestyle of the immigration and customs officer.
After all, when tracking an animal, the best way of surprising it, is to out-think your prey. Veld people are sometimes better at analysing, computing and assessing circumstances and conditions than even NASA’s team of scientists controlling Curiosity on Mars. Well, maybe not all veld-people. Maybe it’s unique to Rolbos – it doesn’t matter – but they all reach the same conclusion at the same time, and it shows…
Fanny immediately noticed the narrowing of the eyes when the photograph was shown. Vetfaan picked up the quickening of the pulse – and Gertruida was near enough to Manie to notice the subtle flaring of the nostrils.
Vetfaan is the first to react.
“You’re lying, aren’t you?”
Manie looks up at the burly man towering over him, swallows hard and shakes his head.
“Look, we’re desperate for any information. Desperate! You understand that? I think you know something and you don’t want to tell us. Why?
Manie’s only answer is another shake of the head, his tongue suddenly dry and thick.
Vetfaan’s next move surprises everybody else in the room. He walks up to the expensive music center, lifts it with ease, and drops it on the floor. Plastic and various components shatter the silence as Manie jumps up instinctively to rush towards Vetfaan.
Had he asked Gertruida, she would have told him that was a stupid move. Vetfaan grabs Manie by his throat, lifts him clear off the ground, and in a move that’ll impress the world’s best wrestlers, smashes him down on the broken machine.
“Now, let me rephrase the question…”