South Africa, September 1952.
Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper switched off the engine and looked out through the dirty windscreen. He was in deep country. To get deeper he'd have to travel back in time to the Zulu wars. Two Ford pickup trucks, a white Mercedes, and a police van parked to his right placed him in the twentieth century. Ahead of him a group of black farmworkers stood along a rise with their backs toward him. The hard line of their shoulders obscured what lay ahead.
In the crease of a hot green hill, a jumpy herd boy with fifteen skinny cows stared at the unusual scattering of people in the middle of nowhere. The farm was a genuine crime scene after all -- not a hoax as district headquarters had thought. Emmanuel got out of the car and lifted his hat to a group of women and children sitting in the shade of a wild fig tree. A few of them politely nodded back, silent and fearful. Emmanuel checked for his notebook, his pen, and his handgun, mentally preparing for the job.
An old black man in tattered overalls stepped out from the band of shade cast by the police van. He approached with his cloth cap in his hand.
"You the baas from Jo'burg?" he asked.
"That's me," Emmanuel said. He locked the car and dropped the keys into his jacket pocket.
"Policeman says to go to the river." The old man pointed a bony finger in the direction of the farmworkers standing along the ridge. "You must come with me, please, ma' baas."
The old man led the way. Emmanuel followed and the farmworkers turned at his approach. He drew closer to them and scanned the row of faces to try to gauge the mood. Beneath their silence he sensed fear.
"You must go there, ma' baas." The old man indicated a narrow path that snaked through tall grass to the banks of a wide, shining river.
Emmanuel nodded his thanks and walked down the dirt trail. A breeze rustled the underbrush and a pair of bullfinches flew up. He smelled damp earth and crushed grass. He wondered what waited for him.
At the bottom of the path he came to the edge of the river and looked across to the far side. A stretch of low veldt shimmered under clear skies. In the distance a mountain range broke the horizon into jagged blue peaks. Pure Africa. Just like the photos in English magazines that talked up the benefits of migration.
Emmanuel began a slow walk of the riverbank. Ten paces along he saw the body.
Within reach of the river's edge, a man floated facedown with his arms spread out like a parachute diver in free fall. Emmanuel clocked the police uniform instantly. A captain. Wide shouldered and big boned with blond hair cut close to the skull. Small silver fish danced around what looked like a bullet wound in the head and another gash torn into the middle of the man's broad back. A thicket of reeds held the body fast against the current.
A blood-stiffened blanket and an overturned lantern with a burned-out wick marked a fishing spot. Bait worms had spilled from a jam can and dried on the coarse sand.
Emmanuel's heart hammered in his rib cage. He'd been sent out solo on the murder of a white police captain.
"You the detective?" The question, in Afrikaans, had the tone of a surly boy addressing the new schoolmaster.
Emmanuel turned to face a lanky teenager in a police uniform. A thick leather belt anchored the blue cotton pants and jacket to the boy's narrow hips. Wisps of downy hair grew along his jawline. The National Party policy of hiring Afrikaners into public service had reached the countryside.
"I'm Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper." He held out his hand. "Are you the policeman in charge of this case?"
The boy flushed. "Ja, I'm Constable Hansie Hepple. Lieutenant Uys is on holiday in Mozambique for two more days and Captain Pretorius...well...he's...he's gone."
Copyright © 2009 by Malla Nunn
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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