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Whatever happened, he just didn't want to make a complete idiot of himself.
Detective Captain Benny Griessel was wearing a new suit of clothes that he could ill afford. There was a bouquet of flowers on the passenger seat, his hands gripping the steering wheel were clammy, and with all his being he yearned for the healing, calming powers of alcohol. Tonight he must just please not make a total idiot of himself. Not in front of Alexa Barnard, not in front of all the stars of the music world, not after all the past week's planning and preparation.
He'd started on Monday, with a haircut. Tuesday, Mat Joubert's wife, Margaret, had been his style consultant at Romens in Tyger Valley. 'It's smart casual, Benny, just a pair of chinos and a smart shirt,' she had said patiently in her charming English accent.
'No, I want a jacket too.' Griessel had dug in his heels, terrified of being caught between too 'casual' and not 'smart' enough. There would be some smart people there.
He had wanted a tie as well, but Margaret had put her foot down. 'Overdressed is worse than underdressed. No tie.' They had left with khaki chinos, a light blue cotton shirt, black belt, black shoes, a fashionable black jacket, and a credit card bill that made him shudder.
Since Wednesday he had been mentally preparing himself. He knew this thing, this event, had the potential to overwhelm him completely. His greatest fear was that he would swear, because that was what he always did when he got stressed. He would have to guard his tongue, all evening. No police-speak, no crude language, talk nice, stay calm. He had gone through it all in his imagination, visualised it, as Doc Barkhuizen, his sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous, had prescribed.
To Anton L'Amour he would say: 'Kouevuur is brilliant guitar.'
That's all, no waxing lyrical and talking shit. To Theuns Jordaan: 'I like your work a lot.' That was a good thing to say, full of respect and appreciation, dignified. Lord, and if Schalk Joubert was there, he, Benny Griessel would take a deep breath, shake his hand and just say: 'Pleased to meet you, it's a great honour.' Then he had better walk away before the flood of words of hero worship, admiration of Joubert's mastery of bass guitar, spilled over all his careful defences.
Then, his biggest worry: Lize Beekman.
If he could just have one drink before he met her. To keep his nerves from getting out of control. He would have to dry his hand on his new trousers first, he couldn't greet Lize Beekman with his palm all sweaty. 'Miss Beekman, it's an exceptional honour. Your music gives me great pleasure.' And she would say 'thank you', and he would leave it at that and go and find Alexa, because that was the only way he would keep from making a total idiot of himself.
The white Chana panel van stopped under the trees in Second Avenue, between the Livingstone High School and the back yard of the South African Police Service's Claremont Station.
It was a nondescript vehicle, a 2009 model bearing the marks of hard labour – a dent in the front bumper, scrapes and scratches on the doors at the back. The windows in the middle and rear were blanked out with cheap white paint. The side panels differed slightly in colour from the rest of the vehicle.
Behind the wheel, the sniper turned off the engine, put both hands on his knees and sat, for just a moment, dead still.
He wore a blue labourer's overall, slightly faded. Long blond hair hung down his back, a brown baseball cap was pulled down low over his eyes.
With deliberate focus he looked out of the passenger window at the deserted school grounds. Then right. He studied the high fence across the street, the double wire gate, and behind it, the SAPS yard, wrapped in the early-evening shadow of Table Mountain. It was quiet and deserted.
He made sure both doors in front were locked, clambered over the seat to the back. The storage space was untidy, boxes and trunks of metal, wood and cardboard. He sat down on a wooden box and loosened the home-made screen of faded yellow material from the carpet-lined roof. It separated him from the driver's cab, making him invisible to passers-by.
He took off the cap, laid it to one side, aware that he was breathing faster, his hands trembling slightly. He relaxed his shoulders with a forced sigh, bent down, opened a long, battered tool chest, and took out the removable tray. It was heavy, filled with well-worn tools – hammers, a collection of screwdrivers, cutters and pliers, metal saw blades. He put it gently down beside the chest, on the rubber matting covering the floor of the Chana.
There were two articles in the bottom of the red box – a firearm and a K-Way Kilimanjaro Trekking Pole.
He took out the hiking pole first, and propped it against his shoulder, picked up the rifle, pressed the silencer carefully through the black wrist strap on the end of the stick, so that the telescope of the rifle was not interfered with, and twisted the stick anticlockwise until the loop was tight.
He pressed his cheek to the rifle butt, tested the height of the supporting hiking pole, and made an adjustment.
He slid the Chana's right side panel three centimetres to the right with the small handle he had attached. Then the magnetic panel outside, so he could aim the barrel and telescope outwards.
He pressed the rifle butt to his shoulder and looked at the SAPS car park through the scope. He adjusted the focus.
In front of the big Victorian house in Brownlow Street, Griessel picked up the bouquet, got out of the car and walked through the little garden gate to the front door.
Alexa Barnard was in the process of renovating the house. The ugly giant cactus against the front fence had been recently removed, the painters' scaffolding stood high against the walls.
It was all part of her recovery, he thought. Her new life.
He came to a halt at the front door, looked at his shoes. They gleamed.
He took a deep breath. What if he had misunderstood the whole thing, and it was a black-tie affair tonight, and Alexa opened the door in some exotic evening dress? Or it was totally informal, denims and open-neck shirts? He had never been to a music industry cocktail party before.
He rang the doorbell, heard her coming down the stairs.
The door opened. She stood in front of him.
'Jissis,' said Griessel.
* * *
Through the peephole the sniper saw the police van drive by close to the Chana. It slowed, ready for the turn in at the wide gate.
He waited for it to reappear in the car park in his field of vision. He kept his cheek pressed to the rifle butt, followed the van through the scope.
Only one occupant, in uniform.
The van drove over the tarred surface to the middle of the open area. It parked behind two other SAPS vehicles where he couldn't see it.
Between seventy and eighty metres, he guessed.
As he aimed the cross hairs on the front of one of the vehicles, waiting for the policeman to appear, he suddenly became aware of the beating of his heart.
He took a deep breath.
The uniform appeared in the telescope. A constable.
Difficult shot, moving target.
He aimed low, followed the movement, forced himself to stick to his procedure: keep the horizontal axis of the scope level, cross hairs on the target, breathe out, press the trigger gently, keep your eye open.
The rifle kicked softly against his shoulder, the muffled blurt of the shot was louder than he had expected, within the Chana's enclosed space.
'You look ...' Griessel wanted to say 'befok', but he restrained himself, searched desperately for an acceptable word, one that would do her breathtaking appearance justice. '... fantastic.' She was standing there in a strapless black dress that draped to her ankles, a wide, tan leather belt just below her generous breasts, light brown platform sandals.
And her face – he had never seen her like this: carefully and skilfully made up, red, full lips, blonde hair cut and coloured, big silver hearts as earrings, her eyes a deep green behind long lashes.
For one fleeting moment he wondered, after everything, whether he would kiss her tonight for the first time.
She laughed and looked at him approvingly. 'You too, Benny.' Then, 'Are the flowers for me?'
'Oh. Yes ...' He held them out to her awkwardly.
There was a blush on her cheeks, genuine appreciation for him, for this gesture.
'Thank you very much.' She stepped forward and kissed Griessel on the cheek.
He knew from experience the shot was barely audible outside, thanks to the silencer and the pieces of carpet glued to the Chana's interior. His palms perspired against the gun and his heart thumped. He worked the bolt, and the bullet casing sprang out, clinked against one of the toolboxes. He pushed another round into the chamber. He moved the weapon slightly, saw through the scope that the constable was unaware of the failed shot, his head turned away towards the mountain.
He aimed down, found the constable's legs in the cross hairs.
He led two, three centimetres ahead of moving legs, knee height, the panic blooming from the pit of his stomach, breathe, breathe, exhale slowly ... He squeezed the trigger. Saw the constable fall.
Relief. Smell of cordite in his nostrils.
Then, urgency, knowing he must concentrate now, the next sixty seconds were make or break, do everything exactly according to the plan.
Unwind the strap of the support stick. Withdraw the rifle from the loop. Lay the weapon in the toolbox. Put the tray over it. Close the box. The pole can stay there.
Lift up the cloth drape.
The cap. Put on the cap.
He climbed through to the driver's seat.
Do not look at the target, do not, but the anxiety threatened to overwhelm him, so he quickly turned his head to see. The constable was eighty metres away, lying there. He was looking down, probably at his leg.
Look in front of you.
Turn the key, start the Chana, pull away slowly, only ten metres and you will be out of sight, seconds, not enough for the constable to see you, to notice, he will be in shock, confused. Don't attract attention, do everything calmly, normally.
He put the vehicle in gear. And drove away.
At the entrance to the Artscape Chandelier Foyer Griessel stared at the giant poster. In big letters it proclaimed Anton Goosen Birthday Concert, Friday 4 March, Grand Arena, with a photo below of all the stars who would be performing there in a week's time. Alexa Barnard was the focal point, right in the middle, just below the smaller announcement which used her stage name: Xandra Barnard is back!
And here he was with that legend on the arm of his new jacket. He swallowed hard, and held himself together.
Inside. Lots of people. He quickly surveyed the men, what they were wearing. Relief washed over him, because there were a lot of jackets. He relaxed a little, everything was going to be OK.
Heads turned towards Alexa, people called out her name, and suddenly they were surrounded. Alexa let go of his arm and began greeting people. Griessel stood back. He had suspected this would happen and was happy she was getting this reception. Last week she had been nervous and had told him: 'I've been out of it for so long, Benny. And that whole thing with Adam's death ... I don't know what to expect.'
Adam had been her husband. Benny had investigated his murder; that was how he had met her.
'You're Paul Eilers, the actor,' someone said right beside him. Then he realised the pretty young woman was talking to him.
'No,' he said. 'I'm Benny Griessel.'
'I could have sworn you were Paul Eilers,' she said, disappointed, and then she was gone.
He recognised some of the music stars. Laurika Rauch folding Alexa's hands in hers, saying something with great tenderness. Karen Zoid and Gian Groen in conversation. Emo Adams making Sonja Herholdt laugh out loud.
Where was Lize Beekman? A waiter pushed through the mass of bodies, came past with a tray full of champagne glasses, offered him one. He stared at the golden liquid, the bubbles lazily drifting upwards, and felt the stirring inside, the desire. He came to his senses, shook his head. No, thank you.
Two hundred and twenty-seven days without a drink.
Maybe he ought to get himself a soft drink, something to hold in his hand, rather than just standing here, a dull island in a sea of glitterati. Look at Alexa, she was at home, in her element, she glowed.
Jissis. What was he doing here?
When he met Schalk Joubert the moment was almost too big for him.
'Schalk, this is Benny Griessel, he also plays bass,' Alexa introduced him, and he could feel his face turn red. With a trembling hand, 'Pleased to meet you, it's a helluva privilege.' His voice was hoarse and he was startled by the swear word that slipped out.
'Ah, a brother. Thank you very much, the privilege is all mine,' said Schalk Joubert easily and comfortably, his tone smoothing away Griessel's fears, making him relax. The enormous compliment of 'a brother' filled Griessel with gratitude, so that, in the light of Alexa's encouraging smile, he found the courage to strike up a conversation with Theuns Jordaan and Anton L'Amour. He asked them how Kouevuur had been put together. And then, emboldened by their generosity: 'So when are you going to record "Hexriviervallei" properly, a complete track? That song deserves it.'
He began to unwind, chatting here, laughing there, wondering what he had been so worried about. He felt almost proud of himself, and then Alexa tugged at his arm and he turned around and saw Anton Goosen and Lize Beekman, side by side, right in front of him, conspiratorial, a moment of silence that opened up in the hubbub and it was too sudden and too much and his brain shut down and his heart beat wildly and he grabbed for the tall, beautiful, blonde singer's hand, completely star-struck, and all that came out of his mouth, the word idiotically long and drawn-out and clear in the silence, was: 'Fok.'
And then his cellphone began to ring in his jacket pocket.
He just stood there. Frozen.
Somewhere in his head the impulse came: Do something.
He dropped Lize Beekman's hand. Shame and humiliation burning through him, he mumbled, 'Excuse me.' He fumbled for his phone, turned away, pressed the instrument to his ear.
'Hello.' Even his own voice sounded strange to him.
'Benny, I need you,' said Brigadier Musad Manie, commanding officer of the Hawks. 'Like now.'
He drove, too fast, angry with himself, angry with Alexa, how could she do that to him? Angry with the cellphone for ringing, he could definitely have recovered from his massive mistake, he could have added something, his practised sentence of 'this is a special privilege', it would have defused the whole mess. Angry with the brigadier making him come in on a Saturday night, his weekend off, angry because he couldn't get the damning chorus out of his head: he had made a complete and total arse of himself. That awful moment, the word uttered, hanging like a dead, black bird between him and Lize Beekman, everything frozen except the irritating ringing of his cellphone and the knowledge that sank down in him like lead: he had made a massive unforgivable arse of himself, in spite of all his resolutions and plans and preparations.
It was really Alexa's fault. She had wanted to know who he was keen to meet, two weeks ago already. From the beginning he had said nobody, he would just be around, available when she needed him. Because he knew he might lose it. But she had drawn the names out of him one by one, and she had said, 'I really want to do this for you,' and he had said, 'No, please,' but with ever diminishing conviction, because the prospect began to tempt him. Until he had agreed, for her sake, but the butterflies had been in his belly already, the faint terror, no, the premonition that he might not handle it well.
His fault. Just his own fucking fault.
He knew there was big trouble when he saw the three senior officers of the DPCI – the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations – and General John Afrika, Western Cape head of Detective Services and Criminal Intelligence.
The burly Brigadier Musad Manie, commander of the Hawks, sat in the middle with a face of granite. On either side were Colonel Zola Nyathi, head of the Violent Crimes Group, and Griessel's immediate boss, and Colonel Werner du Preez, group head of Crimes Against the State (CATS). Afrika was on the opposite side of the table.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seven Days"
Copyright © 2012 Deon Meyer.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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