"I'll take a look at the blanket, then we'll take your father back to town straight after," Emmanuel said when Shabalala rejoined the group. "Hepple and Shabalala, you're with me."
They leaned in close to the bloodstained blanket. The material was coarse gray, scratchy, and comfortable as a sheet of corrugated iron to sit on. Every outdoor event, farm truck, and braai came with blankets just like this one.
Blood had dried rust-brown on the fabric and spilled over the blanket's edge into the sand. Deep lines, broken at irregular intervals, led from the blanket to the river's edge. The captain had been shot, then dragged to the water and dumped. No mean feat.
"What do you make of this?" Emmanuel pointed to the blood-stiffened material.
"Let's see." Hansie came forward. "The captain came fishing, the way he did every week, and someone shot him."
"Yes, Hepple, those are the facts." Emmanuel glanced at Shabalala. If the captain was right, the Shangaan part of the silent black man would see more than the obvious. "Well?"
The black policeman hesitated.
"Tell me what you think happened," Emmanuel said, aware of Shabalala's reluctance to show up Hansie's poor grasp of the situation.
"The captain was shot here on the blanket, then pulled over the sand to the water. But the killer, he's not strong."
"He had to rest many times." Shabalala pointed to the shallow indentations that broke the line as it ran from the blanket to the water. "This is the mark of the captain's boots. Here is where his body was put down. Here was his head."
In the hollow lay a dried pool of blood and a matted tuft of blond hair. The indentations appeared closer and closer together, the pools of blood larger, as the killer stopped to catch his breath more often.
"Somebody wanted to make sure the captain wasn't coming back," Emmanuel muttered. "Are you sure he didn't have any enemies?"
"None," Hansie answered without hesitation. "Captain got on good with everyone, even the natives, hey, Shabalala?"
"Yebo," the black constable said. He stared at the evidence, which said otherwise.
"Some places have trouble between the groups. Not here," Hansie insisted. "A stranger must have done this. Someone from outside."
There wasn't much to go on yet. If it had been a crime of passion, the murderer might have made mistakes: no alibi, murder weapon hidden in an obvious place, blood left to dry on shoelaces...if the murder was premeditated, then only careful police work would catch the killer. Outsider or insider, it took guts to kill a white police captain.
"Comb the riverbank," he instructed Hansie. "Walk as far as the path where the boys climbed up. Go slowly. If you find anything out of the ordinary, don't touch it. Call me."
"Yes, sir." Hansie set off like a Labrador.
Emmanuel scoped the scene. The captain's killer had dragged the body to the water without dropping a thing.
"Did he have enemies?" he asked Shabalala.
"The bad people did not like him, but the good people did." The black man's face betrayed nothing.
"What do you really think happened here?"
"It rained this morning. Many of the marks have been washed away."
Emmanuel wasn't buying. "Tell me anyway."
"Captain was kneeling and facing this way." Shabalala pointed in the direction Hansie had gone. "A man's boot prints come here from behind. One bullet in the head, captain fell. Then a second bullet in the back."
A boot print with deep, straight grooves was pressed into the sand.
"How the hell did the killer manage a clean shot in the dark?" Emmanuel asked.
"It was a full moon last night and bright. The lantern was also burning."
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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