‘Twilight is deepening and the smoke hangs thickly in the streets’ – Read an excerpt from Zola, the debut novel by Johan Jack Smith
More about the book!
Penguin Random House has shared an excerpt from Johan Jack Smith’s debut novel Zola.
About the book
A cryptic killer is cruising the streets of Johannesburg. He’s picking up young women to torture and mutilate, and it’s down to Captain David Majola and Warrant Officer Jason Basson to follow the trail of blood and find him.
Majola, plagued by cocaine and lost love, feels the need to prove himself after his early promotion; his partner Basson, imprinted by the bad old days, wishes he’d walked out on the SAPS years ago.
Tensions between the two rise as the bodies pile up, and while newspapers and politicians hurl accusations and the taxi bosses threaten a devastating strike, Majola and Basson must face the demons of a crazy city.
Available in Afrikaans as Zola: ’n Roman.
Read the excerpt:
Majola stops around the corner from the drug house in Mike Diradingwe Street and makes sure the car alarm is armed. Twilight is deepening and the smoke hangs thickly in the streets. He can hear the dull thud of music coming from one of the houses nearby.
Majola zips up his leather jacket, does one more check to see that the money is there.
Calvin Mpete’s house has large steel doors, a six-foot grey brick wall and two heavies wearing thick jackets and beanies. They turn to him as he walks up the street, taking position in front of the door, hands shoved into deep pockets. The man on the left, wearing a military coat, is the taller of the two.
‘I’m looking for Calvin Mpete. I’m Lulu Majola’s brother. I need to speak to him,’ he says before they can speak.
The men regard him coolly. One turns his back, takes out his phone and makes a call. After a short conversation, he nods at his associate, who unlocks the door with a large key. The guy with the phone motions at Majola to walk through, then follows him inside.
The courtyard is littered with junk, paper bags and broken beer bottles scattered across the paving. One of the doormen indicates that Majola should lift his arms. He frisks Majola, from his ankles to his middle, then under his arms. His hands stop when they feel the money in his inside pocket. The man raises an eyebrow.
‘A gift for Calvin,’ Majola says.
‘That’s Mr Mpete to you,’ the other one says from behind him. Majola can smell the alcohol being breathed down his neck.
‘Follow me,’ the one in front says, unlocking the security gate at the wooden front door. He waits for Majola to enter before closing the door behind them. Majola hears the security gate slam and the key turning.
The house smells like weed, mixed with something sour. It’s like the sunlight hasn’t penetrated in ages. Music plays from different rooms, none in sync. As the doorman leads the way down a long passage, his boots crunch on the tiled floor. The walls are covered in red graffiti, mismatched lettering as if done by a child.
A low light comes from the end of the passage. All the doors on either side are shut, except for one.
As they pass, Majola sees a dimly lit sliver of the room. A naked girl on a bare mattress on the floor, her back to the door. Beside her, crumpled clothes 170 and a smouldering bottleneck. A sweaty man in his underwear sees Majola and slams the door.
Majola can hear a thudding sound from the rooms upstairs, and a woman moaning in the throes of noisy sex. They’re definitely selling more than drugs here. Majola wonders where they hide the supply. There are plenty of rooms here; easy to keep it away from outsiders. Or does Mpete have the police’s protection and not give a shit?
The doorman stops at a door and knocks lightly. He opens it and allows Majola to enter, then closes the door and walks away.
The room was clearly once the master bedroom of the house, but now serves as a kind of office. The only light comes from a tall lamp in the corner and a small one on the desk. Heavy black curtains cover one window, brown blinds the other. An air conditioner blowing heated air has turned the room muggy and uncomfortable. The desk is against one wall, with two leather couches opposite it. A soccer game between two European teams is playing on the big-screen TV. From one of the couches, two bald heavies, even heavier than the doormen, are watching the game with the volume turned down. One is wearing only his boxer shorts. An overflowing ashtray and fast-food leftovers cover the coffee table in front of them. On the green carpet at their feet, there’s a bottle of whisky and a 12-gauge shotgun. They don’t even look at Majola as he walks to the desk.
A blonde is stretched across the other couch, doing her nails. She has dark circles under her eyes and her hair looks dirty. She gives him a bored look, then turns back to her nails. Bare feet, and no bra underneath her black dress. A good body. She’s young, looks barely eighteen.
The desk is cluttered with papers. There’s also a large computer screen and three thick white lines on a mirror beside a rolled-up blue bank note. Majola’s mouth starts to water. Not now. Focus.
A revolver is poorly concealed between two magazines, the silver barrel pointing in his direction. The man in front of him is sitting on a high-backed office chair, his back to Majola. Majola can see only the top of his shaved head, as he’s absorbed by the other TV screen on the wall. He’s playing Grand Theft Auto.
Calvin Mpete. Drug boss with his claws dug into his sister. Majola wishes he could see his face. He needs to look into his eyes. So many rumours surround him. Bad ones: intimidation, abduction, murder. He’s been running the drug game in Alex since forever.
Majola feels naked without his gun. And it’s not like there’s police backup waiting outside.
The sound of the game is deafening. Mpete picks up a remote, turns the volume down, but continues playing. It’s suddenly way too quiet. One of the heavies picks up the bottle of whisky.
‘Do you have the money?’ Mpete asks, without turning around. His voice is 171 harsh, raspy like a lifelong smoker’s. Probably been smoking his own stuff. And judging by the lines on the desk, snorting it too.
‘I do. I’ll bring the rest later.’
‘The rest? What rest?’
Mpete pauses the game. The image freezes on a man who has just lost his arm to the swing of an axe. He turns around slowly. His eyes are pitch black, but his complexion is paler than those of the rest of the men in the house. ‘I told Lulu and that crack whore I want my R24 000.’
‘R24 000? Lulu told me R17 000.’
‘The extra R7 000 is what Christine owes. Your sister said she would vouch for her.’
‘I’ve got nothing to do with her. Her debt is her problem,’ Majola protests. Mpete swivels his chair from side to side, crosses his arms. ‘You’ll have to sort that out with your sister. That’s your problem.’
The men glare at each other.
‘Where’s the money?’ Mpete asks without breaking his stare.
Majola unzips his jacket, takes out the stack of cash, and tosses it onto the desk. Mpete picks it up and throws it to one of the heavies on the couch, who catches it in one hand. He leans forward and starts to count it out on the table.
‘Do you think I made it here by doing favours? Do you know how hard it is for a Xhosa in this line of work? Nigerians on every corner trying to fuck you up and take your territory?’
The man counting the money stops for a moment to look up at Mpete. Then goes on counting.
‘What can you do? Shoot back or recruit them to your side. Right, Frank?’ Frank gives Mpete a smile, then continues counting.
Mpete leans forward with his elbows on the desk. Majola feels uncomfortable, exposed. He no longer has the money, his only bargaining chip. He considers his options. None of them looks very promising. The only possibility would be to go for the gun on the desk, but it’s easily within Mpete’s reach. Bad idea. A shotgun blast from one of the heavies at this distance would certainly be fatal. The other option is to try to hold Mpete hostage with his own gun, but that doesn’t inspire much confidence in him. And to run for the door, down a straight, narrow passage with two heavies behind him and two more waiting behind a locked gate … he’ll just have to hope to make it out alive.
‘You look familiar. What’s your name?’
‘Lulu’s brother,’ Majola answers, putting his hands in his pockets to help him keep his cool.
‘Funny, man. You look like someone who walked around Alex in the Nineties, someone I knew.’
Majola doesn’t answer. Mpete looks him up and down. Majola takes his hands out of his pockets, pulls his collar higher. Mpete narrows his eyes.
The girl gets up from the couch and slouches her way to Mpete’s desk. Majola’s eyes follow her. She moves like a cat. Her black dress only barely covers her bum. There are bruises on her shins and one of her knees is scabbed over. She could be a model; she’s skinny and pretty enough: a model with a debilitating addiction.
Mpete sees Majola looking at her and smiles. She stops in front of Mpete, slowly bends over the desk, picks up the rolled bill and does a line. She rubs her nose. Then she bends for another. Mpete leans forward and puts his hand between her legs, feels her up slowly. The girls groans as she does the next line. When she walks away, Mpete smells his fingers.
‘Straight outta Sandton.’
The girl smiles and winks at Mpete.
Majola avoids Mpete’s eyes. His gaze is nailed to the last remaining line of cocaine.
‘Go right ahead. It’ll be the best line of charlie you’ve ever had. Uncut, from Colombia,’ Mpete says smugly.
One of the heavies starts laughing.
‘Looks like it runs in the family,’ Mpete tells Frank.
The blonde girl smiles at Majola from the couch, her legs spread, one finger lightly running up and down her thigh. Frank signals to Mpete that the money is all there.
Majola forces his gaze away from the line on the desk. ‘I’ll bring the rest next weekend,’ he says.
‘Okay. I’ll do you a favour. Next Saturday at the latest. Otherwise me and my two Nigerian friends will go pay a visit to Lulu and your mother, in that house with the broken Cressida on the bricks.’
Majola takes a step closer. Mpete’s hand shoots out for the revolver, but he doesn’t pick it up. Frank aims a Heckler and Koch MP7 at him without getting up. His associate has already picked up the shotgun and is standing with it aimed at Majola’s chest. Where did the MP7 come from?
‘Ooooh, cowboys!’ the girl taunts the men.
‘Easy now, big boy. Don’t be mad at me; go take it out on your sister,’ Mpete growls. ‘Don’t ever try shit in my house. Now get the fuck out of here. I’ll see you soon enough.’
Majola walks backwards to the door. The weapons are all still pointed at him. The door is locked.
‘Easy!’ Mpete yells at the door. It opens and one of the doormen is there, ushering Majola out. A door down the hall opens and a young black girl who looks barely twelve years old comes running out, screaming at the top of her voice. She’s wearing only her panties. A thickset man runs after her, throws her over his shoulder and takes her back to the room.
‘Feisty thing,’ he says to Majola.
The girl looks straight into his eyes. He’ll have to put that moment away in the box of nightmares he keeps inside, just like all the others. One of the many he couldn’t save.
‘Let’s go, baba,’ the doorman says, shoving him towards the front door.