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When Sol Nemo, a rich but mentally-troubled private investigator, learns of the kidnap of the wife of the man who’s been like a father to him, he responds instinctively to the call for help. But, unfortunately, Sol’s bargained without the betrayal of his trust and the life-threatening consequences that follow.
So begins this intriguing tale of murder and revenge set against the backdrop of South Africa’s breathtaking landscapes and the vibrant cities of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Step by step, as the story unfolds, Sol has to confront a web of deceit and corruption with which he must wrestle; just as he must wrestle with the crippling anxiety that periodically overwhelms him. And, as if this wasn’t enough, Sol must also decide his response to his on-off lover’s recent overtures. Is her sudden rekindled interest no more than the lure of his vast inheritance or does she really wish to cement a long-term future together?
From all this, Sol emerges as a protagonist with many of the doubts and weaknesses that afflict us all but, in the final reckoning, he too must answer the question: How far will I go to take revenge?
Extract from new book
Leaving the God’s Time Car Wash, I made the steep descent down Russell Road with the warm waters of the Indian Ocean spread before me. Where the road forked, I took the exit for Summerstrand and drove past the Campanile following a route as soulless as an LA freeway. The traffic though was done with its rush hour frenzy and so I made good progress past the apartment blocks overlooking the waterfront. They had names like Sea Spray and Ocean View; and architecture with not nearly as much creative flair.
I was on my way to a meeting with chartered accountant, Eugene du Toit. He wanted to see me urgently but not at his firm’s plush offices in a converted bungalow off the Cape Road. Rather he requested a tête-à-tête, as he put it, at an apartment he leased close to the Boardwalk.
Yet as I drew near my destination my cell phone sang out. I fumbled it to an ear and heard a voice tell me the venue for my appointment had been changed because of a re-scheduled meeting in Cape Town. This made no sense as I was no more than ten minutes from Port Elizabeth’s airport. But, like that guy who sang about having no particular place to go, I got directions and pointed the Mustang’s nose northwards.
I drove inland beyond the town of Uitenhage and into farming country where I picked up a dust trail that wound up by a copse of wild fig. From there, a sign marked a track leading to a gate topped with razor wire and cameras. At my approach, the gate opened revealing a corridor with electrified fencing. At its end was another gate and it too slid aside noiselessly.
On the far side was a large house constructed in the Cape Dutch style. The façade was brilliant white and the windows barred, as was the glass in the heavy front door. I stopped the car in the shade of a carob tree and killed the engine.
In the hot still air, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing to ease the churning in my stomach and the pounding of my heart. There was no reason for these symptoms. It was simply what the psych profession calls anxiety. It was a feeling of insecurity, of being unsafe, and it could be as debilitating as living with one leg.
But this time I wasn’t discomforted for long as a couple of Alsatians provided distraction by hurtling towards the car. Startled, I looked up and saw a tall thin man by the open front door. He was wearing sand-coloured chinos and a light blue shirt, open at the neck. Stirring himself to acknowledge me was evidently too much effort as he did no more than bark an order at the dogs and gaze at me, much as one might view some strange specimen of wildlife that had unexpectedly fetched up on his doorstep. It reminded me of the looks I was given when I took up golf. Some of those old Dutchmen thought I should be pulling their golf trolleys, not striding the fairways with them and airing my views about the uncomfortable reality of white monopoly capital.
When the dogs retreated, I climbed out of the Mustang and approached him lifting my shades onto the top of my head.
I flashed a smile in greeting. In response, the man offered a hand with long bony fingers. ‘Eugene du Toit,’ he said, bloodless lips forming the words with care.
I took his cold claw. ‘Solomon Nemo. But you can call me Sol.’
‘Come with me, Mr. Nemo.’ Abruptly, du Toit turned on his heel, leaving me to shut the door.
I followed the accountant’s spare figure through the house. From the kitchen area, I heard low voices and a radio playing Afrikaans pop; not my bag at all.
We went as far as a huge living room where a collection of mounted heads on one wall looked down upon a collection of stinkwood furniture. I couldn’t decide which occasioned the greater dislike.
My host led me through double doors to a stoep which had a view over a well-tended garden. At its boundary two lines of tall electric fences five metres apart ran parallel to each other, each topped with razor wire. This level of security piqued my curiosity.
Du Toit offered me a cane chair at a circular table topped with a mosaic of blue and white tiles roughened with age and wear. Awaiting deployment was a silver tray laden with china and an ornate coffee pot plus a jug of iced lemonade and crystal glasses. Nearby were a propped tablet and two smart phones. An open pilot’s case loaded with files stood on an adjacent chair.
‘If you want refreshment, help yourself,’ my host said carelessly as he sat down. At his back was a brick-built braai or BBQ with a stack of wood to one side and a line of empty whisky bottles on a shelf above. I doubted any were other than single malts. ‘I trust you weren’t incommoded by my summons,’ he added.
I was suddenly irritated by his arrogance. ‘I’m trying not to feel pissed off if that’s what you mean.’ Abruptly, I settled myself into a chair opposite him. I grabbed the lemonade and poured a glass as my mouth was parched.
Du Toit gazed at me with piercing eyes. He was long in the trunk and so he sat taller than me. ‘What I wish to tell you, Mr. Nemo, surpasses secrecy,’ he began, looking down his thin nose. ‘Nothing I tell you today is to be repeated at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances. Do I make myself clear?’
I would have ventured some wisecrack but didn’t get the chance as one of the phones vibrated. Du Toit started and then picked up. ‘Ja?’ he said.
What followed meant little to me. There was some stuff about commercial mortgages, a lot more on the valuation of goodwill, and a textbook’s length of blah on the subject of different debt instruments. In response, du Toit wrote in a leather bound notebook using a Montblanc fountain pen.
Me, I tuned out.
Sipping my lemonade, I looked beyond the electric fences where rough pasture fell away into a valley. In the distance I discerned the glint of water on a reservoir and a gaggle of farm buildings at one side.
Friend Eugene finished at last and laid the phone and notebook aside. He seemed perplexed by something and his prominent forehead, accentuated by a receding hairline, was furrowed with worry lines. In my experience, this is often the effect money has on people. How much or how little you have isn’t relevant in the worry stakes if you’re built that way.
‘Time’s money,’ I said, trying to be helpful.
That snapped du Toit out of it. ‘We were talking about the need for secrecy,’ he said. ‘I’d started explaining…’
I cut in. ‘Message received first time round.’
My host looked at me pointedly. ‘I’m acting for Mr. Franco Zarakolu,’ he said.
It was my turn to be perplexed. ‘You work for Frank?’
‘Work for isn’t the expression I’d use. He’s been a client for about 18 months. We provide accounting and legal services.’
‘Frank had an accountant in Jeffreys for 20 years or more,’ I said. ‘I don’t recall him ever having much use for lawyers.’
If my host was annoyed at my sideswipe, it didn’t show. Instead, he carefully lifted the propped tablet and turned it to face me. ‘Tell me what you see,’ he said.
Fact was I could see less than Jonah inside the whale. The sun was the main culprit, but the screen was also smeared. I turned my chair round and put the tablet onto my lap. I made out a woman holding a newspaper in front of her chest. Closer examination confirmed the paper was Die Burger. Its political affiliations have changed since apartheid but I seldom read it. ‘What am I looking at?’
‘Don’t you recognize her?’ asked du Toit.
I scrutinized the screen more closely. The picture quality wasn’t great but still something started to squirm in my gut. ‘Is that Mira?’ I said at last, looking up.
Du Toit nodded. ‘That’s Frank’s wife with today’s edition of the paper.’
A void seemed to open in the pit of my stomach. Whatever my thoughts about Mira, I knew Frank was besotted with her. ‘How long’s this been going on?’ I asked.
‘Six days. I receive an email with that picture every morning. I check each day’s headline changes with Die Burger’s website to verify authenticity.’
‘Proof of life,’ I volunteered. ‘But photos can be doctored. Have you had the images checked?’
‘I’m not a cretin, Mr. Nemo’, said du Toit, reaching for the coffee pot for the first time. ‘Each and every one has been checked. Their authenticity isn’t in question.’
I watched him pour black coffee into a fancy bone china cup with a gold rim and add sugar. I doubted it would sweeten him any.
‘Have you any idea who has her?’
It’s said there’s many a slip between cup and lip. Du Toit slipped for his raised coffee cup never reached his lips. ‘How should I know?’ he said. ‘Really, how would I?’
‘How much do they want?’
A year or two before, I’d have reacted differently. Probably whistled out loud, gasped audibly, or dropped my jaw a metre or two. But now?-I was the guy who’d blown a couple of million bucks changing cars five times in seven months. From personal experience, I knew you can get pretty complacent about large piles of cash. ‘I don’t think Frank has that sort of money,’ I said.
Du Toit smiled. Actually, it wasn’t a smile but a smirk. ‘That’s for me to know and you to wonder about,’ he said. ‘But I’m sanguine as regards the current position. All the money will be raised within the next few days.’
I absorbed this dumbly until it struck home that the shock of Mira’s kidnap had addled my brain. ‘Where’s Frank?’ I said. ‘Hell, why isn’t he here?’
Then I got another jolt.
‘Frank had a heart attack,’ said du Toit.
‘Two days ago. He’s in the ICU at St. George’s.’
‘I-I didn’t know that. I was working a case in Windhoek and got back late.’
Du Toit shrugged his shoulders and consulted his watch.
I waited for him to say something more and, when he didn’t, I asked impatiently, ‘You mind telling me how he is?’
‘I believe he’s comfortable. But Frank’s health isn’t the issue. I have his power of attorney and his instructions are unconditional. He wants Mira back whatever the cost.’
‘Are the police involved?
‘What do you think, Mr. Nemo?’
I’d worked for the SA Police Service for almost seven years until they kicked me out for speaking my mind once too often. The experience had left me with some regrets but more anger. ‘I’ll take that as a no. What’s Frank’s view?’
‘His view isn’t really an issue either. I told Frank if he involved SAPS, I couldn’t act for him. I wouldn’t trust those kaffirs to find my dog in its kennel.’
This sort of bullshit is still heard from certain quarters of the old guard. But these days they don’t parade it. It’s the sort of stuff saved for the country clubs and the hunting expeditions and the house parties.
‘I guess you got me here to do more than shoot the breeze,’ I said. ‘You want to tell me where I fit into all this?’
‘Left to me, you don’t fit in,’ said du Toit flatly. ‘You’re simply a complication I can do without. But Frank wants you at the exchange. He needs you to bring Mira back to him personally. He told me you can handle yourself if there’s trouble.’
I couldn’t recall being described in that way before. True, I was registered with the security industry people covering my investigations work but that didn’t mean much. Thinking about it, I suppose it was about my ability to land a few punches in a fistfight, shoot a variety of guns with a measure of accuracy, and wield a knife without self-harming.
But what he was describing was something else. Kidnappers don’t hail from the ranks of the Salvation Army or get asked to judge fancy dog competitions. With what was at stake here, these mothers were likely to be as amenable as a nest of Cape cobras.
Against that, I couldn’t walk away. There was a debt I owed Frank. The fact it had been outstanding for more years than I liked to acknowledge made my duty all the plainer.
‘How’s the exchange to be made?’ I asked.
‘Electronic transfer of funds?’ My surprise was acute. ‘How does that work?’ For the first time, Du Toit looked puzzled so I spelt it out for him. ‘A funds transfer is done in the blink of an eye. But getting Mira from the place of exchange to a place of safety, for example a police station, takes time. Make a single transfer and she could be snatched back within seconds.’
‘So the payments need to be staged?’
I nodded. ‘You catch on fast. Of course, the details will have to be negotiated and you’ll need my help with that. That means we’ll have to work together. How do you think you’ll cope?’
Du Toit didn’t answer at once because he was distracted by the buzz of an aircraft engine. I followed his gaze and saw a monoplane emerge from the left and pass across my line of sight. There was a flash of sunlight on its wings before it was hidden by a fold in the ground as it descended to the distant valley floor.
‘Be assured I’ll cope fine,’ said du Toit with another of his unattractive smiles. ‘But that’s for later. I have to go. The plane’s my ride to Cape Town. The trip should sort out the last of the fund-raise.’ With that, he closed the tablet and transferred it and his notebook to the pilot’s case.
Abruptly, he stood up, pocketed one phone and responded to a call on the other. ‘Yes Karl, I heard it,’ he said. ‘Get the car up here at once and tell the pilot it’s wheels up in ten minutes. I don’t want my time wasted.’
I hadn’t moved so du Toit lowered his eyes to mine. ‘I’ll be in touch,’ he said.
I got up and he extended his claw of a hand again. ‘I’m sure you can find your way back to the front door.’
‘I’ll certainly give it my best shot.’
Turning away and walking back through the house, I heard du Toit’s voice say, ‘He’s on his way through.’
As I approached my car, there was a line of garages I’d not noticed on my arrival. To one side a big man sat in a chair with the Alsatians at his feet. He was wearing a bush hat and a holstered pistol. He looked chilled but his eyes were watchful. As I climbed into the Mustang, he touched a hand lightly to his hat brim and smiled but I don’t believe the gesture was to do with any feeling of fellowship.