An extract from Kick the Tokoloshe, a cosy-crime novel by Sam T. Mackay
CHAPTER ONE: Pinky Pinky
Crap. I can smell crap. And fires and paraffin and rotting food.
I ease one eye half open.
It’s night. The air cold and sharp and seared with smoke. The only light a flickering, half-dead streetlamp down the road.
I open the other eye.
I’m in a bath. A bath dumped at an awkward angle on a pile of trash in a field. Explains the smell. And the pain in my lower back. And why I’ve lost feeling in the leg currently hanging over the edge.
As I come to my senses, my body sends me a detailed list of pain, discomfort and, in my left leg, burning pins and needles. There’s something squishy under my left hand. I peel it off my leg and lift it up — a hank of shocking pink hair with the roots still attached hangs limp and grim from my frozen fingers. Ugh. It’s still juicy.
It being the operative word. My memories are coming back, as they usually do, in a tsunami of feelings, thoughts, images and noises. Hysterical Auntie. Niece gone missing. Urgent call on a Sunday afternoon.
‘Thandi is missing! Something stole her from the playground. Bathong! It was the Pinky Pinky. Aaaaaiiiiiieeee, it will eat her!’ Auntie had howled down the phone. ‘Help me! Dr Promise said you could help me!’
Dr Promise, my gobela, my mentor, calling me with advice on how to catch the thing. Flashes of pink hair through the township. A hunt through Soweto. A fight in the toilets of the local primary school. Corrugated iron slammed into the wall above my head. The Pinky Pinky was all the big noises, big bangs, big hits and bad breath. It did not believe in brushing its teeth and I can still smell the dead things, rotten things and forgotten lumps of meat stuck behind jagged teeth things when its tongue had slapped over my mouth to stop me from cursing. Ugh.
I ease myself out of the bath. My left foot isn’t ready. I collapse face-first onto a rotten apple and an abandoned McDonald’s box. Turns out the original owner didn’t like pickle and mustard. The yellow paste oozes affectionately down my face. There, there, it says as it drips onto my brand-new, bright-yellow and, let’s face it, magnificent leather jacket. The mustard is partly obscured by the sunny colour; the flecks of blood and splashes of pink hair are not.
I push myself into a half-leaning, half-sitting position beside the bath and give myself a moment to take in my surroundings.
To my right, a barbed-wire fence lines two sides of the field with blackjacks growing thick around the edges, warring with weeds for dominance beside cement and steel. A thin path weaves up to a section of the fence that’s stamped low by commuting feet, barbs biting the ground — a shortcut to a giant loop of highway that curls overhead into a junction of car farts and taxi horns. In front of me stretches a wide-open space that maybe once was green but is now a war between grass and shit and litter and piss.
How the hell did I even get here?
I pull my backpack in front of me — thank Nutella I didn’t lose it — and tug my phone free from the side pocket. I need to call an Uber. There’s a notification on my screen. I’ve been paid by the grateful Auntie — it looks like I managed to drop Thandi off before I passed out. It’s not much money, but it’s enough to cover some groceries and a coffee. I set the Uber collection point for a dirt road a few metres ahead of me, stagger upright and start walking. Well, hobbling and cursing.
I have no idea how I navigated this gathering of cinder blocks, toilet seats, rubbish bags and wiring while half unconscious. It takes me a while to get to the potholed, dusty strip of road that marks my pick-up point, but the Uber is nowhere in sight.
I reach up to touch my hair. Great. It’s sticking out in all directions. I always look like I’ve been electrocuted after I’ve used the power in a fight. I take a moment to think enviously of the Pinky Pinky’s glorious locks and freeze. Did I deliver it before I passed out, or is it still lying around somewhere? My chest tightens. I call Dr Promise.
‘Charleeeee.” Delight in her voice. “Did you make it home?’
‘Er.’ I look around me. ‘No.’
‘I told you, Charleeeee, I told you to stay here. You were grey.’
‘Ah, I had to take Thandi home. You know.’
‘The little one’s Auntie could have collected her from here! You’re too stubborn, not careful enough. Did you get her home?’
‘Yeah. She’s home safe, Dr Prom.’
‘Eish, Charleeee, stop calling me that…’ A loud squawking interrupts her. ‘I have to go, I have a customer. Bad situation. Very bad. He says his wife has been sleeping with his best friend. He’s brought her in and I need to see what the chicken says. Themba fetched the chicken from the sheds and dropped it on the floor, eish that boy, and now we must catch it. Thanks for the Pinky Pinky, by the way!’
She hangs up, but not before I catch the sounds of a furious chicken being chased in the background. Relieved, I squat down on my heels and check through my backpack. Both my Red Bulls are gone. Wow, I must have expended a lot more energy than usual tackling the Pinky Pinky. Two should have kept me going until I got home. The problem is the power. Dr Prom defines it as the power of the ancestors, but she’s got the great outfit and enormous headdress and rich heritage. I’m so white that I could be used as an emergency beacon on a dark night. I’m not sure my ancestors are doing anything except drinking whisky in the afterlife while comparing kilt patterns.
When I use the power, it costs me. I fall over into an exhausted coma after I’ve used a lot of it. Usually after I’ve been fighting, cursing, and, well, running. How soon I fall over depends on how much energy I use, how hard the fight and how many Red Bulls I drink before I get somewhere safe. I’ve done it often enough that I’ve got it down to a fine art. Making sure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of a tussle with a supernatural, or straight afterwards, is an obsession. There’s nothing that inspires you to be careful as much as passing out in awkward places and being found by concerned citizens. Or pissed on by a troll.
A car comes to a dusty halt in front of me. My Uber driver has arrived.
‘Eish, you drunk?’ Mr White Toyota peers at my mustard and blood covered outfit. He isn’t keen on me getting into his car.
‘No, I was…um…’ I try to think of something that won’t make him drive off and leave me to walk back to my car in the cold. ‘Mugged.’
He looks at the pink hair hanging in bits from my jacket and pants. ‘Mugged by tsotsis with pink hair?’
He shrugs. I get in, ready to direct him to where my phone tells me that my parked car is located. I hope it still has all its tyres.
It’s five a.m. when I finally manoeuvre my battered, blue Uno into Sunset Leopard, the upmarket Sandton complex where I live. I inherited my second-floor apartment in this, the richest square mile in Africa, from my grandmother, and I fit in as well as a crystal healer at a medical convention. My cheap-arsed piece-of-shit car surrounded by Porsches and Jaguars and Land Rovers.
Around me beats the blood of the wealthy. Here, the streets are devoid of the ankle-deep potholes that litter the rest of the city, smoothed silken by greased palms. A multitude of private security companies surf these streets in matt-black cars branded with logos that compete for the most guns in one image and driven by men wrapped in testosterone and body armour. Ours is Black Widow Security. Two streets down, it’s Armed Vikings. And I’m pretty sure I saw Die Hard Security a few days ago.
As I swerve into my parking spot, I see my downstairs neighbour, Lucy Labuschagne, smothered in purple Lycra and disapproval, limbering up on the pavement beside the parking shades. She dislikes me intensely, as do a solid ninety-eight percent of the other residents of Sunset Leopard. That’s what happens when you’ve passed out on three different stairwells and in someone else’s toilet (don’t ask), and have ectoplasmic vomit on your shoes almost every time one of them bumps into you. The other two percent is Lionel van der Byl, the muscular gym chain owner from Number 28, who thinks my reputation as local drunk and suspected prostitute is hilarious, and Ronald the gate guard, who I recently helped with his African troll issues.
Lucy’s disapproval rating hits a new high as I stumble out of the car and head past her towards the stairs.
‘Sies,’ she manages, lips puckered tighter than I thought her fillers could manage.
She trots off down the path, a hard ignore. Ronald notices and takes a long time to open the gate for her, ruining all her warm-up stretches as she waits in the cold. I grin. That troll was worth it.
Oh, for the love of fritters. The door to my apartment is open. What creature, malevolent spirit, annoyed client, or pissed-off whatever is sitting in my lounge with zero self-awareness about how movie mafia this is? I push the door wider with the tip of my takkie. It doesn’t behave anything like the doors in movies. It swings back and hits my shoe.
‘Charlie? That you?’
‘Jesus, Mak.’ I march into the apartment. ‘What are you doing here? And why didn’t you close the bloody door? It’s freezing.’
‘Eish, man, sorry. I’ve just arrived.’ Mak, perched on a bar stool beside my slate-grey kitchen bar-slash-counter, thrusts a McDonald’s box at me. I’m tempted. Even with the ancient pickle smell that’s formed a fast-food smog around me.
‘Let me shower first.’
‘Fok, what happened to your jacket? Did you fall asleep in a McDonald’s? Is that pink hair?’
‘Ahhh.’ Mak nods. ‘Coffee?’
‘Oh, yes. Yes please.’
He heaves his muscular bulk off the stool and heads into the kitchen. Mak is enormous. His head, currently holding a pair of wide, black sunglasses, is bald. Mak isn’t handsome —his eyes are too small and ears too big — but he’s definitely arresting. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been tempted. He’s sexy as hell, but he’s already got four wives and they all seem permanently pissed off with him.
‘It’ll be ready by the time you’re out of the shower,’ he says as he pulls the coffee beans from the cupboard.
I turn towards the bathroom, crossing through the open-plan lounge that abuts the kitchen and two bedrooms. My apartment is cleverly designed. Windows and skylights make every room feel spacious. The kitchen looks like it stepped out of a home-décor magazine with grey granite countertops, white cupboards and tasteful handles. The rest of the flat is warm colours, hardwood floors and pressed ceilings. I’ve customised my grandmother’s elegant taste with two bright-orange leather sofas, a red kettle and a coffee machine with more knobs than a politician’s office. I’ve also not bothered with paintings or pictures. Except two in the corner.
There used to be one.
I slam the bathroom door shut, strip off my stinking clothes and step under the shower, not even bothering to wait for it to heat up.
A few minutes later I emerge from the bedroom, pulling a soft green jersey over a white T-shirt and look straight at the mess of my new leather jacket draped damp over the back of the orange sofa. ‘Shit.’
‘It’ll clean off. Leather looks better with weather.’ Mak’s re-established himself at the kitchen counter. ‘Although nothing can make that colour better.’
Mak, real name Jim Makgotsi, is a police detective who knows precisely what I do for a living. Which is nice. Most people think I’m either making it up or making it happen. Including my old boss, the Chief of Police Koos Visser — a large, whiskery, beer boep-carrying misogynist with the personality of a tyre iron. The party he threw when I left the force was legendary. Mak showed up at my apartment afterwards, drunk as a fart and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ so loudly that Lucy scuttled upstairs to yell at him, only to scuttle back down as he roared ‘DA DA DAAAAAAAAAAAAAA’ into her scented face mask.
‘Yellow is the colour of happiness.’ I smirk as I sit down next to him and grab the cup of coffee steaming beside the McDonald’s he’d thrust at me earlier. I take a long, slow sip before opening the box. I blanch. ‘A burger? For breakfast?’
‘What?’ Mak’s voice is muffled as a hefty whack of syrupy pancake enters his mouth. ‘It’s a breakfast burger!’
I eye his box of tasty pancakes. ‘Give me that.’
I cough on them before he can take them back.
‘Thanks.’ My turn to sound muffled as I stuff pancake into my mouth. They’re magnificent, but they need more syrup — sugar is the way to a supernatural detective’s heart. ‘Why’re you here?’
‘Can’t I be here to visit my friend?’
I stop chewing and stare at him.
‘Fine, fine. I’ve got something for you. A crazed killer with a possible Charlie twist.’
‘Tell me more.’
Mak leans back against the kitchen wall. ‘So far, we have three bodies, washed up on the spruit wrapped in white industrial webbing. Two members of the local Zionist church found the bodies yesterday after they’d gone for a walk upstream to find out why their people were getting sick after baptism. Turns out they’d been taking in bits of dead body along with Jesus.’
‘Ja, and they’ve been twisted into pretzel shapes, like this.’ Mak puts his left arm behind his back and his right across his chest, twisting both shoulders to mimic a grotesque mummy. ‘The bodies are with Kerry at the moment to assess time and cause of death.’
Kerry Lancaster’s the forensic pathologist who works with Mak at the Gauteng Violent Crime Unit (GVCU), a public-private partnership between the South African Police Services (SAPS) and a conglomerate of private security companies headed up by Angry Badger Security. It’s an experimental, state-of-the-art crime unit designed to bypass bureaucracy and incompetence using the best-of-the-best of people, technology and systems to actually catch criminals.
‘Has she found anything yet?’ I ask.
‘It’s weird. The three bodies are all missing their hearts.’
‘Seriously? Their hearts?’
‘Ja, and…’ Mak pauses. ‘They are covered in scratches, bites and gouge marks.’
‘That’s…odd. But still could be some nutter eating his way through his victims. We’ve seen weirder. I’m not seeing the connection to my, um, skills.’
‘We found cat hair tied with a green ribbon pushed into the heart cavities.’
‘Right, that’ll do it.’ That last fact, added to the missing hearts, has moved the conversation straight into my territory. The land of the supernatural weird and wonderful.
‘The pressure on this one has been fast and strange, Charlie. We got the call from the priests early yesterday morning and, while the last body was being loaded into the van, one of the bigwigs was on the phone to the Chief. Fix it, and fix it fast. Use any means necessary. He was like an angry ferret after that, poking into everyone’s business, tramping all over the crime scene.’
Chief Visser, the asshat I not-so-lovingly call Chief Kak, heads the GVCU and reports to Jonas Kinwasi, Director General of the SAPS, and Barbara McGovern, CEO of Angry Badger Security. The GVCU has an impressive success rate because it can afford people like Kerry and Mak and Ebrahim Lovejoy — possibly the best detective ever born — but its funding structure means hierarchy, key performance indicators and metrics. The Chief is more pencil pusher and goalpost achiever than detective.
‘Chief was twitchy, Charlie. When Kerry showed him the cat hair, he told me to get you in. Payment guaranteed.’
‘Payment?’ I’m not sure that the word captures the full scale of my Holy crap, what are you saying?
Mak shifts. It’s clear that this is the part of the conversation he wasn’t looking forward to. ‘Eish, Charlie. I know you don’t want to work for him again — it’s a mess after everything that happened. But payment…’
Mak knows I’m broke. After all, the reason I’m now a freelance detective slash supernatural hunter slash stopper of all things nasty is because of the incident that cost me my job and my reputation. Chief Kak made it his life’s mission to create a working environment so toxic that I’d show myself the door. He was successful. Me, on the other hand, not so much. My salary is sporadic financial gratitude from terrified Joburg citizens sent my way by Dr Prom and the Council.
‘The Chief says that you can have your fee of six-hundred rand an hour, no questions asked. Until you give us a verdict. Then, he will decide what happens.’
Mak winces. ‘Ja, so your job is to decide what kind of “fokken strange kak” this is and then he’ll bring in someone to deal with it.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘He doesn’t trust you, Charlie. After what happened with Fiona…’
My old partner, killed in the line of duty. Everyone blamed me. Nobody knew what really happened that night. Except Mak, Dr Prom and me.
‘That was not my fault. Nobody could’ve predicted that. Nobody.’ I’m fierce with remembered rage.
‘He needed someone to blame. He’s not all bad, Charlie. He’s just…’
‘A knob.’ I helpfully finish for him. ‘What happened to cops stand together, Mak?’
Mak sighs. I shake my head. There’s no point. I hate and blame myself as much as Chief Kak does. ‘He also said you’ll get clearance — expert-advisor status,’ Mak says.
‘Huh.’ That’s going to be interesting. I’ve not been back to the GVCU since I left a year ago. The thought fills me with a mix of dread and excitement.
‘It’ll be good to have you back. Have you at my back.’ Mak says. ‘You’ve been missed by those who count.’
I attempt a smile. Mak looks concerned, inching away. ‘Do you have gas?’
I glare at him. Then look down at my congealed pancakes. They’ve lost their appeal. I stand up and start tidying away the food and cold coffee cups.
‘We’ve seen some weird shit over the years, all of us,’ Mak says, sounding worried. ‘We all know that your world exists, but nobody ever says a word. It’s this thing, over there. Those of us who know, we call the right people. Used to be the local sangomas, now it’s you. The Chief obviously knows I tell you when we hit a case that fits so you can get private pay to fix the problem, but he never says a word to me or anyone else. Then he has that call yesterday and he turns white — hehe, whiter — and tells me to pull you in.’
‘Who called him?’
‘I think it’s either Jonas or Barbara. But why would one of them get involved?’
‘I’ve got a funny feeling, Mak.’
‘Could be the pancakes. Stolen food makes you sick.’
‘Har har, hilarious.’ I wave his empty coffee cup at him. ‘More?’
I pour the last of the coffee and top up our mugs with a splash of milk. I slide the sugar over to Mak — he’s not keen on sugar-free — and take a sip, hip leaning against the black granite counter. The yellow and sticky pink mess of my jacket catches my eye so I fetch it and bring it into the kitchen, putting it on the metal draining board. Mak, used to how I process things, opens up his phone and starts reading his messages. It looks tiny in his hands.
I open a drawer under the sink and pull out my leather-cleaning kit. Leather cleaner is a business essential in my line of work because leather is both armour and weapon. It’s the only material that can be used to capture and hold the supernatural and it forms a natural shield that protects me from supernatural smacks. The cleaner and more supple the leather is, the better it works. Dr Prom’s mantra ‘The cleaner the leather, the better’ was drilled into me from the first lesson.
I remove most of the hairs, pickle and sauce from the jacket with a paper towel, then, using soapy water and a sponge, I wash away the stubborn sticky hairs and blood, wipe the jacket dry and rub in leather conditioner, the delicious lemon and beeswax scent proving a bonus in getting rid of the Pinky Pinky stink.
‘How do you think the bodies got to the spruit?’ I ask, as I massage in the last bits of beeswax. ‘You think maybe the storm on Thursday night shook them loose from somewhere?
‘Ja, that’s a possibility. That storm was a doozy.’
It was also completely out of season and unnatural. I’ve been on edge ever since.
‘Neighbouring complex caught fire,’ I say. ‘The lighting hit that gigantic palm tree.’
‘Shit, did the fire get far?’
‘Nah, with all the money in this area, the fire brigade actually arrived.’
‘Okay, so the bodies. Three? None higher up or further down the spruit?’ I ask.
‘Ebrahim thinks there are more, somewhere. You know his…’
‘…hyena senses,’ I finish. We both grin. Ebrahim is an exceptional detective and one of the people I miss working with the most since being forced out of the, well, force. His ‘hyena senses’ are famous. He has a knack for finding information and clues in places where everybody else has already looked.
‘Ja, so, Ebrahim checked the river and surrounding area and can’t find anything. It’s not surprising. That storm destroyed half the indigent camps, and a few of the houses nearby have trees instead of walls. The bodies could have come from anywhere. A camp. A house. Hell, dumped.’
‘Where were they found?’
‘Up near Chateaux Gateaux, down from the Scout Hall.’
Mak’s referring to the part of the spruit that weaves alongside some of the wealthiest homes in Johannesburg, where the rich and skinny cycle along a verdant path beside litter-decorated water.
‘Do we know who’s wrapped in the webbing?’
‘Kerry said she’d message me as soon as she finds out, but it’s going to be a while yet.’
Yeah, South Africa. If it’s not admin in triplicate, it’s unnecessary delays and long waits. Police work has to be a calling, otherwise you’ll be a gibbering wreck by the end of month two.
‘Nobody’s at the scene now…’ Mak looks at me. ‘Come, if we go now, you can take a look around before Ebrahim does another sweep of the area. It could help.’
I’m torn. I did get some sleep in the bathtub, but it wasn’t enough and I’m shattered.
Mak shakes his head. ‘This could be your only chance to see if you can pick up anything from, you know, your side.’
He’s right. The police know how to avoid ruining forensic evidence — well, mostly — but have a tendency to trample right over the things that can help me assess the scene from the supernatural perspective. This often slows me down. It also drives me nuts.
‘Okay, let me get ready.’
I grab my backpack and fill it with three bottles of anti-nasty sprays, two Red Bulls and some extra leather strips that I keep stored in the cupboard under the sink. I also use the leather cleaning cloth to wipe off a couple of bloodied pink hairs from one of the straps.
‘Let’s go,’ I say as I throw on my now-gleaming yellow leather jacket.
‘Do you have to wear that?’