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Balthasar's Gift


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148 Pages

You can change the print size of this book


Maybe it was an error for crime reporter Maggie Cloete to ignore the call from the AIDS worker, before someone put four bullets in his chest. It is post-apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the century. But there is a threat to the country�s new democracy: HIV/AIDS, which is met with fear and superstition. Now that fear has reached Pietermaritzburg and an AIDS activist is dead. Maggie�s instincts are on red alert. Despite threats from politicians and gangsters, she learns too much about Balthasar�s life and his work at the AIDS Mission to be distant and professional. She is deeply, and dangerously, involved. Balthasar�s Gift continues the tradition of pacy, hard-boiled South African crime fiction.



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Published 12 June 2014
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EAN13 9781920590567
Language English

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English edition first published by Modjaji Books (Pty) Ltd in 2014
PO Box 385, Athlone, 7760, Cape Town, South Africa
CCooppyyrriigghhtt ©© CChhaarrlloottttee OOtttteerr 22001144
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanicaall
means, including photocopying and recording, or any other information storage or retrieval system,
wwiitthhoouutt wwrriitttteenn ppeerrmmiissssiioonn ffrroomm tthhee ppuubblliisshheerr..
Cover artwork by Angela Briggs & Justin Anschutz
Cover lettering by Jesse Breytenbach
Book and Cover Design by Monique Cleghorn
Editor: Karen Jennings
Set in 11 pt on 15 pt Minion
Printed and bound by Megadigital
ISBN: 978-1-920590-52-9 (paperback)
IISSBBNN:: 997788--11--992200559900--5566--77 ((ee--bbooookk))For Elise Cooper, a shining light.1
Tuesday, 7am
Sunlight glinted on the knife. It could have been a watch, or the carapace of a phone, or the shinyy
buckle of his belt, but it was a knife. She knew from the sly way he pulled its serrated smile out of hiiss
jjeeaannss ppoocckkeett aanndd hheelldd iitt aaggaaiinnsstt tthhee wwoommaann’’ss rriibbss.. HHiiss aaccccoommpplliiccee llooootteedd tthhee wwoommaann’’ss mmoonneeyybbaagg,,
stuffed coins into a plastic bag. She bowed her head in penitence, as if the shame of being robbed iinn
public was too much. Her legs wobbled. Only the knife’s grimace kept her upright.
In the early-morning rush, they could slip the knife into her torso and no one would be the wiserr..
Only when the crowds had melted away to their offices, shops and fast-food restaurants, donned theiirr
wwoorrkk ffaacceess,, uunniiffoorrmmss aanndd nnaammee--ttaaggss,, wwoouulldd hheerr pprroonnee aanndd bblleeeeddiinngg bbooddyy bbee ffoouunndd.. MMaaggggiiee wwaattcchheedd
ffrroomm tthhee ttrraaffffiicc,, ttrraappppeedd bbyy tthhee ccrruusshh ooff ssuubbuurrbbaann sseeddaannss aanndd mmiinniibbuuss ttaaxxiiss aarroouunndd hheerr..
‘Stop them!’ she yelled, her voice muffled by the helmet. No-one heard her.
The knife-bearer aimed a kick at the street-trader’s stall and her wares – an incongruous mix ooff
apples, oranges and baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of the local football team – scattered to thee
ground. His friend shoved her and she staggered and fell, her head hitting the pavement with aa
ssiicckkeenniinngg ccrraacckk tthhaatt MMaaggggiiee hheeaarrdd ddeessppiittee hheerr hheellmmeett aanndd tthhee rreevvvviinngg ooff eennggiinneess..
Her scream reverberated in Maggie’s ears.
The traffic light turned green and Maggie opened the throttle. She smelled petrol. She watched thee
thieves’ heads bobbing through the wave of people on the pavement. She watched the red t-shirt andd
the yellow thread their way through the crowd, eyes down, not running, but moving at a pace. Theyy
wove with intent, heading for the taxi rank that would take them out of town and out of dangerr..
MMaaggggiiee ttrraaiilleedd tthheemm,, tthhee YYaammaahhaa’’ss eennggiinnee ggrruummbblliinngg..
They crossed Longmarket Street, Maggie’s route to work. She should turn right, go and park herr
bike and head into the office for her daily duties, but the sweet adrenaline of petrol fumes and thee
thieves’ swagger drove her after them. She revved again, and one turned his head. Wordless, he lookedd
into her eyes. She narrowed them. He grabbed the other man’s arm, pulled it. They ran. Maggiee
gguunnnneedd tthhee eennggiinnee..
TThhee mmeenn ddooddggeedd ppeeddeessttrriiaannss,, ssiiddee--sstteeppppeedd aanndd wweeaavveedd.. TThheeyy tthhrreeww ggllaanncceess oovveerr tthheeiirr sshhoouullddeerrss aatt
the roaring bike and flung a right at the corner. The traffic light was green and she followed. Therree
were fewer people here, and the men ran faster. She was going to lose them. The cross-streets that ledd
to the city’s lanes were approaching; they would duck into the maze and be lost forever.
She dropped a gear and the bike whined in response, but the gap between her and the menn
wwiiddeenneedd.. TThheeyy wweerree ggeettttiinngg aawwaayy..
There was only one option. She turned the front wheel towards the pavement and heaved up thee
handlebars. It was quicker on the pavement. A man in a suit with a cell phone clamped at his eaarr
yelped and pressed himself against a shop window. She was gaining on the men. She could see thee
muscles in their arms straining and hear their panting breath. A woman who had just parked her caarr
screamed and flung the car door closed. In the rear-view mirror Maggie could see the blackened ‘O’ off
hheerr mmoouutthh..
The bike nosed the back of their legs. Their t-shirts were dark with sweat.
‘Stop!’ she shouted. They didn’t.
She saw the opening to a parking lot. Both men turned and sprinted in. Maggie followed, but thee
men split. One ran back onto the street. The other – yellow t-shirt, the knife-bearer – climbed thee
wwooooddeenn ppoolleess ssuuppppoorrttiinngg tthhee rrooooff ooff tthhee ooppeenn--ssiiddeedd ccaarrppoorrtt.. HHee hheeaavveedd hhiimmsseellff oonnttoo tthhee rrooooff..
MMaaggggiiee ttuurrnneedd ooffff tthhee eennggiinnee,, hhooiikkeedd tthhee bbiikkee oonnttoo iittss ssttaanndd,, aanndd ffoolllloowweedd hhiimm..Hands greasy with creosote, she struggled to get purchase on the roof, but she angled one knee oveerr
the drain. She hooked her fingers under the tin roof tiles, already baking in the morning heat, andd
pulled herself up. The roof shook with the man’s tread as he ran down the length of the carporrtt..
MMaaggggiiee rraann aafftteerr hhiimm,, tthhee tthhuummpp ooff bblloooodd iinn hheerr eeaarrss..
He reached the end of the port and swung himself over a wall. She heard a gasp of breath as hhee
landed. She looked down at the two-metre drop and the concrete floor below. The man pulled himsellff
to his feet, but he was hobbling. He had injured himself.
She knelt on the wall, turned herself around, held on by her hands and slid down, her stomachh
scraping against the rough bricks. She felt the jolt in her legs as she landed, swung around and saw thee
mmaann rroouunndd tthhee ccoorrnneerr.. HHee wwaass iinn hheerr ggrraasspp..
She sprinted across the empty lot and turned the corner after him.
The knife grinned at her.
‘Leave me alone,’ the man panted, his fingers gripping the knife’s handle. ‘I don’t have the money..’’
Maggie felt a cold bead of sweat trail between her shoulder blades. She stretched her hands ouutt
ttoowwaarrddss hhiimm.. ‘‘GGiivvee mmee tthhee kknniiffee..’’
WWiitthh hheerr ootthheerr hhaanndd,, sshhee ffeelltt iinn hheerr jjeeaannss ppoocckkeett.. SShhee hhaadd MMaatthhoonnssii oonn ssppeeeedd--ddiiaall..
The pain slashed across her open palm, a line of blood gathered across the word tattooed on heerr
palm. The four letters inked there were now blurred. She looked up and saw his teeth before he turnedd
to run. A red mist gathered at her temples, her vision grew hazy with outrage. He wasn’t getting away..
Sprinting behind him, she grabbed his arms and tackled him, ignoring the searing pain in her handd..
HHee sslliidd ttoo tthhee fflloooorr,, hhiiss iinnjjuurreedd aannkkllee ggiivviinngg wwaayy uunnddeerr hheerr wweeiigghhtt.. MMaaggggiiee ccoouulldd ffeeeell tthhee sstteeeell ooff
muscle in his arms as they wrestled. His legs flailed against hers. She pulled back her foot and aimed aa
kick at his ankle. He screamed. As he clutched his foot, she reached around and pulled the knife out off
his jeans pocket. Pointing the man’s knife at him, she pulled herself to a standing position, about too
press Mathonsi’s number on her cell phone.
Instead her phone rang. It was the boss.
‘‘TThhiiss iissnn’’tt aa ggoooodd mmoommeenntt,,’’ sshhee ttoolldd hhiimm.. AAtt hheerr ffeeeett,, tthhee tthhiieeff wwrriigggglleedd ttoo aa ssiittttiinngg ppoossiittiioonn.. MMaaggggiiee
thrust the knife at his chin and he winced. His eyes held the blank patina of desperation. He startedd
inching away from her. She trod on his outstretched hand – he was not getting away. Her steel-cappedd
Docs would make sure of that.
‘It never is,’ said Zacharius Patel. ‘There’s been a shooting. Possible murder. Get yourself to HIV
HHoouussee tthhiiss mmiinnuuttee.. EEdd’’ss aallrreeaaddyy oonn hhiiss wwaayy..’’
‘‘OOKK,,’’ sshhee ssaaiidd.. AA mmuurrddeerr wwaass bbiiggggeerr nneewwss tthhaann aa kknniiffee--wwiieellddiinngg tthhiieeff.. ‘‘JJuusstt ggoott ssoommeetthhiinngg ttoo ttiiee uupp
‘Don’t mess around, Cloete,’ Patel said. ‘Try and get there before the cops if you can. Once theyy
have the scene sealed, the story’s comatose.’
She grimaced and killed the call. She didn’t need Zacharius Patel to tell her how to do her job.
MMaaggggiiee ggrraabbbbeedd tthhee mmaann’’ss sskkiinnnnyy wwrriisstt wwiitthh hheerr rriigghhtt hhaanndd,, ppaaiinn ffoorrggootttteenn,, aanndd wwiitthh hheerr lleefftt
ripped one of the laces out of her Docs. She hauled him to his feet, pushed him against a lamp-posstt
and tied his hands behind his back and to the post. Then she called Mathonsi.
‘I’ve left you a present,’ she told the policewoman. ‘On Carbineer Street. Round the corner from
Prince Alfred Parking.’
In the lot she rocked her bike off its stand and pulled on her helmet. There was no time to wash oorr
cclleeaann hheerr bblleeeeddiinngg hhaanndd.. SShhee hhaadd ttoo ggeett ttoo HHIIVV HHoouussee aanndd ffaasstt..
It was an eight-block drive through the rush-hour traffic. As she signaled to turn onto the road, aa
minibus taxi with windows open, kwaito blaring and passengers crammed in five to a seat, hooted andd
swung in front her. She swore under her breath and the driver flashed her a two-fingered peace signn..
The taxis ruled the road and anyone who thought differently risked a side-swipe. She couldn’t affordd
tthhaatt rriigghhtt nnooww.. WWoorrkk wwaass wwaaiittiinngg..
TThheenn tthhee ttrraaffffiicc lliigghhtt cchhaannggeedd aanndd ppeeddeessttrriiaannss sswwaarrmmeedd aaccrroossss tthhee rrooaadd iinn hheerrddss.. SShhee sswwoorree aaggaaiinn..
When her passage was free of human obstacles, she gunned it, blurring the buildings and shops onn