DETECTIVE SERGEANT, EMMANUEL COOPER crossed the ramshackle garden, jacket unbuttoned in the nighttime heat. A fat moon tangled in the branches of a jacaranda tree and the air carried the smell of fresh-cut grass and the tree’s shameless purple flowers. It was a perfect Friday night to sit with his daughter Rebekah’s chunky brown arms laced around his neck while Davida sat barefoot on the stairs. Instead he was at a crime scene in Parkview, in the flashing lights of a street cruiser.
Blue police barricades encircled a brick house with weeds growing from the gutters. The barriers made a physical reminder that the inhabitants had passed through the veil of the everyday and into a darker world of blood and broken things. Emmanuel crossed the crime-scene perimeter and left ordinary behind.
“Detective. Sir.” A gangly white policeman reeking of sweat and vomit moved off the house stairs. He’d been inside, Emmanuel guessed, and seen something he wouldn’t forget. “Lieutenant Mason said to go straight in, Detective. Sir.”
A cluster of young uniformed constables stood on the porch. Two more of them guarded the front door. Middle-class, European victims always brought the force out in force.
“Sergeant Cooper, Marshall Square,” Emmanuel said to the police on door duty. They stepped aside. He stepped in.
Smashed furniture littered the entrance and ripped telephone wires snaked across the oak floorboards. Glass from a broken hall stand reflected a mosaic of light onto the ceiling. Emmanuel took a deep breath. A single phone call he’d received minutes before the end of the shift had made the difference between being with Davida and Rebekah and being here, in chaos.
“What a mess, hey?” Detective Constable Dryer, a big-boned Afrikaner with thinning brown hair combed over a bald spot, stood in a doorway to the right of the wreckage. Dryer’s most useful character trait was his ability to state the completely fucking obvious.
“Uh-huh.” Emmanuel made the right noises. The white and yellow telephone wires interested him. The actual telephone lay farther into the hallway, the receiver torn clean from the cord attaching it to the base. Stripping the wires from the wall might be a sign of extreme caution or violent rage. No way to tell which yet. An ambulance siren wailed in the distance.
“Animals. Who else would do this so close to Christmas?” Dryer hooked his broad thumbs into his belt, which gave his beer gut room to move. “You wait and see, Cooper. The police commissioner will work us like dogs till this case is closed. No leave. No overtime. We can kiss our holidays good-bye.”
“Bad timing,” Emmanuel said. Dryer liked to complain. If he’d worked for the postal service, the mailbags would be too heavy. Emmanuel let him gripe. The fleshy Afrikaner was background noise and part of what Emmanuel had agreed to endure in order to secure a short-term transfer from the coastal city of Durban to the flat sprawl of Johannesburg. He’d worked his boss, Colonel van Niekerk, hard for the transfer and knew that the favor would have to be repaid in the future—with interest. Seeing Davida and Rebekah every day, however, was worth the heavier workload, and Dryer was no worse than most of the detectives he’d worked with in other places.
Broken glass crunched underfoot and a tall man with a thin, humorless mouth stepped out of a room farther down the corridor. “Detectives,” he said. Black hair, black shoes and an unwrinkled black suit gave Lieutenant Walter Mason a grim, funereal appearance.
“Cooper.” Mason crooked a finger. “In here with me.”
Emmanuel kept to the left of the corridor, careful to avoid disturbing the debris. A living room with a lime-green carpet, a brown corduroy sofa and a tinsel-laden Christmas tree appeared untouched. Four silver photo frames were arranged in a straight line on the mantel. Sounds of quiet sobbing came from deeper in the house.
“There’s no time for delicacy, Cooper,” Mason said. “The ambulance officers have to get through. Dryer, clear a path.”
“But . . .” The Afrikaner started to complain. Mason’s icy expression killed the words in his mouth. “Right away, sir.”
Emmanuel approached the doorway where the lieutenant stood. Oak floorboards creaked underfoot. The air smelled of rusting copper after the rain. Emmanuel knew the odor well. It was the hot, wet funk of blood: a scent burned deep into his memory. He’d smelled too much of it on the battlefields of France during the war.
“Go on.” Mason motioned into a bedroom bathed in bright electric light. The metal smell intensified and burned Emmanuel’s throat. A shirtless white man lay on the cream-colored carpet, pale arms and legs splayed at bizarre angles. Pulped and swollen to twice its natural size, the man’s face resembled a grapefruit left to rot in the field. Stained teeth showed through a split bottom lip. He had been horribly beaten. He might live to midnight.
“Ian and Martha Brewer,” Mason said. “A high school principal and a secretary at the office of land management. Not the usual victims of such a violent crime.”
Emmanuel skirted the bed and found Martha Brewer. She was a tiny thing, a puppet with cut strings propped up against the mattress base. Blood clotted her dyed blond hair and stained the neckline of her pink cotton nightdress. A pulse point fluttered at the base of her neck, weak but steady. The ambulance siren howled from the front lawn and set the neighborhood dogs to barking.
“Stay here, Cooper. I’ll see the medics in.”
“Yes, sir.” Emmanuel remained crouched and looked around. Middle-class ruin blighted every surface of the room. The wall behind the quilted bed head was sprayed with an arc of rust-colored splatter. Summer dresses and plain cotton shirts had spilled from broken dresser drawers. The wardrobe had also been rifled.
“In here.” Mason directed two white men into the bedroom. Each carried a canvas-and-wood stretcher underarm and a medical kit in hand. “See to the woman first.”
Emmanuel stepped into the corridor, gave the ambulance crew room to work. They knelt on the stained carpet, stanching blood and bandaging wounds. Their hands were soon soaked, the knees of their trousers blotted red. Martha Brewer’s body made a small hollow in the canvas as they carried her to the ambulance, taking a path cleared through the hallway rubble by Dryer.
“The husband is finished,” Mason said when the ambulance roared onto the asphalt road with sirens screaming and Ian and Martha Brewer strapped into the back. “With God’s grace the wife will survive the night.”
“Yes, by the grace of God.” Emmanuel made more right noises. Some days it seemed that all he did was lie by omission.
“I didn’t take you for a praying man, Cooper,” Mason said. The only real color in the lieutenant’s face was in his eyes: they were a bright blue. Ice cubes had more warmth.
“I keep my hand in.” Emmanuel examined the telephone wires to avoid discussing religion with Mason, a born-again, praise-the-Lord Christian. For twelve years the lieutenant had worked undercover operations, all the while enjoying regular access to his two great loves: sourmash whiskey and free pussy. Then a gospel tent preacher saved him and now he served a joyless god who frowned on all forms of pleasure, even laughter.
“So it’s true,” Mason said. “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
“I never met any,” Emmanuel said. That his superior officer knew he’d been a combat soldier during the war and not part of the rear-echelon army was a detail to consider later.
“All this for a box of jewelry and a stack of bills hidden behind the underwear drawer.” Mason gestured to the wrecked furniture. “The love of money is truly the root of all evil.”
“The living room hasn’t been touched,” Emmanuel said. “There’s a row of silver picture frames on the mantel. Why expend so much energy and leave those behind?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a robbery became a murder.”
“True.” Burglars caught in the act killed dozens of people every year and maimed a few more besides. “This level of violence seems excessive, almost personal in nature.”
Sobbing came from the rear of the house.
“That’s the daughter you hear.” Mason stalked the length of the corridor, crunching debris. “Negus is babysitting her in the kitchen till one of the station typists arrives. She needs a female touch.”
In police code, female touch translated to “the witness is hysterical and won’t stop crying, even though we’ve told her to.” Emmanuel followed Mason and glanced into a room with an upended single bed, a ransacked wardrobe and walls papered in a yellow canary design: a teenager’s bedroom, presumably the girl’s.
“The police typist is coming from out Benoni way. She won’t be here for another half an hour at the earliest.” The cold-eyed lieutenant paused outside a closed door and glanced at Emmanuel over his shoulder. “I want you to get in there and try to calm things, Cooper. If I remember right, you’re good with women.”
“I’ll try,” Emmanuel said. Good with women? He couldn’t think where Mason’s comment came from.
Dryer sniggered, sure that Mason was referring to a party in Dryer’s imagination at which Emmanuel and the lieutenant had shared in a repast of whores lain on by an obliging madam. Dryer was an idiot.
Emmanuel tried and failed to come up with a source for Mason’s observation. They’d never worked together before or even had a beer at the local bar. The undercover operations squad was a tight unit. They believed in secrecy and money. Emmanuel had stayed far away from them his whole career—and especially since arriving back in Jo’burg.
“In here.” Mason opened the door to a ruined kitchen. Silver cutlery and smashed containers littered the floor and counters. Piles of flour, rice, coffee and sugar were dumped onto the small pine table. A white girl in a cotton nightie sat in a chair with her face buried in her hands, weeping.
“Name?” Emmanuel asked before going in.
“Cassie. We got that from the neighbor who called in the disturbance. Nothing from her yet.”
Negus, the detective on babysitting duty, was a solid, old-fashioned cop Emmanuel knew from the station. He would have come on duty with three things: a loaded gun, adrenaline and a hard-man face. Good cop or not, he was ill equipped to comfort a teenage girl whose parents might die tonight.
“Thank Christ,” Negus mumbled when he reached the door. “I need a piss and a smoke.”
The girl, Cassie, sobbed and kept her fingers tightly closed. Eyes shut, face hidden, she was trying to block out the chaos. Emmanuel walked into the room: time for Cassie to put her hands down and open her eyes.
“The local police found her in that corner.” Mason pointed to a spot near a four-burner gas stove. “We’ve tried to get her out of here, but she won’t leave.”
The kitchen, at least, smelled of cinnamon and caster sugar instead of blood. There was no blood in this room that Emmanuel could see. The headmaster and his wife had been beaten in the bedroom while the house was turned over: a job for two men, minimum. He found a kettle in the debris and filled it at the sink.
“Do you want a cup of tea, Cassie?” he asked. “Or cocoa, if I can find it?”
“Nothing,” she sniffed.
She was talking. That was a start. Emmanuel left the water running and checked her for injuries. Blood running down her thighs or dripping from an elbow would have shown up in the flour sprinkled on the floor. The flour was still clean. Cassie’s freckled legs and pale arms were likewise unmarked by trauma, her yellow nightgown pristine.
“Is that blood?” Emmanuel leaned closer, heart thumping. Red color smudged across the back of Cassie’s hand. Christ knows what injuries hid behind those shuttered palms.
“What?” she hiccuped.
“There.” He touched a gentle fingertip to the spot and noticed the red had a strange metallic shine.
“Oh.” She dropped her hands to the table and rubbed at the smear with a fingertip. “I don’t know where that came from.”
Oh, yes you do, Emmanuel thought. It wasn’t blood Cassie scrubbed away at so hard. It was lipstick.
“I’m Detective Sergeant Cooper,” he said, and shut off the water tap. “Are you hurt anyplace that I can’t see?”
“No.” Cassie scraped the last trace of red away with a fingernail and looped a strand of frizzy ginger hair behind her right ear. She was about fifteen years old with bright hazel eyes and a wide mouth that belonged in a broader face. Freckles sprinkled her nose, neck and collarbones so her skin appeared browner than white. “I’m all right. Really.”
Emmanuel gave her his handkerchief and said, “Can you tell me what happened, Cassie?”
She blew her nose and frowned, thinking.
“Take your time.” He lit the gas flame under the kettle. “There’s no rush.”
“I . . . I was asleep in my bed and there was a . . . a big crash. Like there was someone in the house.” The frown deepened, cutting a trench into her forehead. “It was dark. I couldn’t see.”
“Tell me what you did then.” Emmanuel sat at the table. “After the noise.”
“I got a fright and I got out of bed.” Cassie twisted the corner of the handkerchief into a tight cylinder. “Then I hid behind the wardrobe.”
“Your wardrobe?” The ripped doors and the scattered contents he’d seen from the corridor.
“Ja. That one.”
“Did you hear voices from there?”
“What?” The question seemed to startle her and the corners of her wide mouth twitched. “I . . . I don’t know what you mean.”
Emmanuel said, “You were behind the wardrobe while the robbers were in your room. Did they say anything?”
Cassie took a deep breath, looked away to the kitchen window. The moon now hung lower in the branches of the jacaranda outside. Two minutes ticked by in silence.
“Zulu,” she said finally. “They were speaking Zulu. I don’t know what they were saying.”
Footsteps shuffled in the doorway. Mason and Dryer moved closer to catch the rest of Cassie’s story. A few days shy of the Christmas holidays, the police commissioner would cancel all police leave pending an arrest. The headlines tomorrow would send a ripple of fear through the white neighborhoods: “Zulu Gang Beats European Couple to Death in Their Bed.”
“It wasn’t Pedi or Shangaan that you heard?” Emmanuel asked. Johannesburg was the economic powerhouse of southern Africa, and it drew black Africans of every different tribal group to the city with the promise of work. The city was an industrial Babel, with dozens of languages spoken.
“No. It was Zulu. Definitely. I . . .” Cassie buried her face in her hands and started to cry again.
Emmanuel placed a hand on her arm, hoping the warmth of human contact would calm her. It didn’t. Cassie’s sobs deepened. Only a little while ago, she had been alone in a corner, too terrified to move, while her parents bled out onto their carpet a few feet away.
Emmanuel stood up and put an arm around her shoulders. Her wet face pressed against his stomach. He made the right sounds yet felt no sorrow, pity or anger. He was detached, floating above the wrecked kitchen, wondering when his ability to lie had grown so deep and become so easy. Wiry hair crinkled against his shirt, curlier than his mixed-race daughter’s would ever be. He’d never hold his own girl Rebekah like this in public.
“It’s okay.” He recited the given script. “You’re safe now. You can talk to me. Tell me anything.”
“I recognized their voices.” Cassie’s face burrowed deeper against his tear-soaked shirt. “I know who did it.”
“You know their names?” Emmanuel asked.
Mason moved into the kitchen and stood at the edge of the pine table. He watched Emmanuel’s ministrations with snake eyes. If I remember right, you’re good with women. Emmanuel had been meticulous with his lies these last five weeks, especially around Mason. Talking about his personal life would send him to jail for three to six years for “immoral activity.” The beauty of Davida Ellis’s honey-brown skin against white cotton sheets and the sky gray of his daughter’s eyes would remain his secret.
“It was boys from St. Bartholomew’s College,” Cassie said. “Two of them.”
“Look at me, Cassie.” Emmanuel waited till she did. He had to be sure there’d been no mistake. “You’re talking about St. Bartholomew’s College in Sophiatown?”
She broke off eye contact and licked her dry lips. “Yes.”
The Anglican school and its well-known redbrick chapel were in Emmanuel’s old neighborhood. The school was an oasis in the tough streets of Sophiatown for black boys who wanted to become teachers and lawyers instead of gangsters. His good friend Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala’s son attended the prestigious school.
“How did you come to meet students from a native school?” Sophiatown was less than thirty miles from the neat grid of suburban streets where Cassie lived, but it might as well be on another planet in a distant galaxy.
“My father,” Cassie said. “He runs an extracurricular program for natives. He takes them to the theater and also to music concerts. Once a term they come to the house for dinner.”
“To this house?”
“Ja. He thought it would be good for them to see how Europeans lived.”
Dryer snorted from the doorway. Emmanuel stepped away from Cassie’s burrowed face and squatted by her chair. She chewed her bottom lip.
“Tell me their names,” Emmanuel said.
“I . . . I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
“We’re just going to talk to them and clear things up. That’s all.” Emmanuel was surprised at having to coax the names of the culprits from Cassie. Christ Almighty. What did she care if two black boys from the townships got into trouble for beating her parents and wrecking her home?
Cassie pressed the handkerchief to her face. “Kibelo Nkhato. I think that was his surname,” she said. “And Aaron Shabalala.”
Emmanuel slipped back into his body, heart thumping and panic taking hold like a virus. Shabalala was a common Zulu name. Throw a net out of a bus in Sophiatown and you’d land a dozen. But two boys named Aaron Shabalala attending the same Anglican-run boarding school was unlikely.
“You’re sure about those names?” Emmanuel leaned in closer to establish eye contact with Cassie. The odds against there being a personal connection between him and this crime scene were astronomical.
“Yes, of course. They were here tonight for the end-of-term dinner.” The handkerchief muffled the sharp edge of her voice. “It was Aaron and Kibelo. Those two boys. I’m not making it up.”
Her gaze flickered away to the window for a second time. With any other witness, the broken eye contact would point to a lie or an evasion. Emmanuel wasn’t sure the same rules applied here. Cassie was a plain girl who, he suspected, sat in the corner at school functions with an empty dance card on her lap and a carnation wilting behind her ear. He might have overplayed the eye contact and pushed her back into her shell.
“Aaron Shabalala and Kibelo Nkhato.” Emmanuel sat back down and flipped open his notebook. He proceeded as usual. Until he knew for certain that this Aaron was his friend’s son, there was nothing else to do.
“Describe the boys to me,” he said.
“Kibelo is skinny and light-skinned. He wears glasses and he likes to talk. Shabalala is not like that.” Hot color stung Cassie’s cheeks. “He’s tall with wide shoulders and brown eyes. He doesn’t speak so much and sometimes his face is like a mask, so you can’t tell what he’s thinking.”
He’d never met any of Shabalala’s sons in person, but a tall Zulu male with wide shoulders and the ability to keep his thoughts to himself: that might well be a description of Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala of the Native Detective Branch.
“Did your father keep money in the house?” Emmanuel’s voice remained flat and cool despite his thudding heart.
“No,” Cassie said. “He liked to tell the boys that the bank was the only place to keep money. You earned interest on the deposit and the money was insured if there was ever a robbery.”
Solid advice, which Cassie repeated with a glazed look. Emmanuel imagined the end-of-term dinners were probably torture for the principal’s daughter, having to sit politely at the table surrounded by native boys while her father divulged the cultural secrets of the white race. The neighbors wouldn’t be pleased with the idea of black boys eating off china plates in the house next door, either.
“Why do you think they did it?” Emmanuel asked.
“The boys. If Nkhato and Shabalala knew there was no money in the house, why do you think they did all this?” He motioned to the wreckage.
“Oh . . .” Cassie’s gaze flickered across the debris and her shoulders curled in. She thought a moment then said, “They took the car. That must be what they wanted.”
“What car?” Mason’s voice was a bucket of ice water thrown onto a fire. Cassie jumped at the sound of it.
“Tell me about the car.” Emmanuel spoke over the low noise of Mason’s grinding teeth. You’re good with women. He had to figure out where the ex–vice cop got that idea.
“It’s a Mercedes-Benz cabriolet,” Cassie said. “Red with black leather seats.”
“Nice . . .” Dryer gave a soft whistle and nodded approval. A flick from Mason’s index finger sent him scuttling back into the corridor.
“Go check the garage, Cooper.” Mason jerked a thumb to the back door. “See if the car’s gone.”
“The boys broke in, found the keys and then stole the Mercedes. I heard the engine,” Cassie said.
“Make it fast, Sergeant.” Cassie’s certainty seemed to agitate Mason more than the assault on her parents. His jaw worked on an invisible piece of gristle between his teeth. “You’d have to be an idiot to take a car like that and expect to blend in.”
Emmanuel got up, switched off the kettle and walked to the back door. Mason had it right. Two black boys in a red luxury car. The idea was ridiculous. They wouldn’t get past the first roadblock.
A china fragment crunched under his shoes and he looked down. The imprint of a bare foot pressed into the floured tiles. Not a single print, but a line of them moving from the back door to the corner of the kitchen where the police had found Cassie hiding.
Emmanuel checked the door handle. The lock buckled inward but the square of glass inset into the wood remained intact. This was the point of entry into the house. A simple break and enter that started with the snap of this handle and ended in chaos. Were the car keys that hard to find?
“Make it fast, Cooper. We need to get to the school and interview those boys. That’s if they’re still in town.”
He gave the kitchen one last glance. Cassie hunched in the chair and chewed at her fingernails. The trail of footsteps snaked around broken glass and skipped over shards of porcelain. Despite being in fear for her life, Cassie had carefully picked her way across the room to a safe corner. She glanced up and met Emmanuel’s eyes.
His look said, You are lying, girl. And I know it.
She covered her face with her hands.
Five days before Christmas, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper sits at his desk at the Johannesburg major crimes squad, ready for his holiday in Mozambique. A call comes in: a respectable white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala— the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala—Cooper’s best friend and a man to whom he owes his life.
The Detective Branch isn’t interested in evidence that might contradict their star witness’s story, especially so close to the holidays. Determined to ensure justice for Aaron, Cooper, Shabalala, and their trusted friend Dr. Daniel Zweigman hunt for the truth. Their investigation uncovers a violent world of Sophiatown gangs, thieves, and corrupt government officials who will do anything to keep their dark world intact.
Malla Nunn on PRESENT DARKNESS
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
From behind his desk in the Johannesburg major crimes squad, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is counting the hours until his holiday in Mozambique. Then a call comes in: a respectable white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their home. The couple’s teenage daughter identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala—the youngest son of Cooper’s best friend. Though others in the office aren’t interested in hearing evidence to the contrary, Cooper knows the boy is innocent and is determined to ensure justice for Aaron. With the help of Shabalala and their friend Dr. Daniel Zweigman, Cooper sets out to find the truth. Their investigation uncovers a violent world of Sophiatown gangs, thieves, and corrupt government officials who will do anything to keep their dark world intact.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Race is incredibly important in the highly structured world of apartheid Johannesburg, but Emmanuel, a white kaffir, seems to almost float between the races. How does his past a see more