SHORTS

This is where Tom occasionally posts short stories.

Steve Solves the Case

As Sfiso’s 50th birthday drew nearer and nearer, he began to act strangely. The great talker who could keep dinner guests roaring with laughter had been almost silent for a couple of weeks. When his wife Nandi asked him what was the matter, he told her that there was a problem at work.

She was puzzled, because her husband loved the world of South African provincial politics, and had found himself at home in it ever since he had handed in his AK 47 and returned from exile. Sfiso had been tipped for advancement in the near future, so Nandi accepted his explanation: “It’s party business – I’m not at liberty to say anything about it.”

She mentioned this to her 14-year-old son Steven. “I think it’s a good sign. I’m guessing that the next stage in his political career is about to begin. I’ve always been told that Dad is destined for great things.”

But Steve inwardly questioned his mother’s explanation one Friday evening at the dinner table when Sfiso abruptly cancelled an eagerly-awaited family holiday. “Sorry, my darling, sorry kids – but we’ll have to postpone the Okavango trip.”

He took Steve’s five-year-old sister Nandipha on his lap and tried to console her with the promise of a trip to the beach. Steve excused himself and went to his bedroom, where he had left an unfinished detective novel. He loved stories of crime and detection, and never missed TV crime shows. He had a collection of books; his favourite detective, apart from the famous Sherlock Holmes, was Sergeant Mickey Zondi, the Zulu sleuth in the novels of James McClure.

The next morning, straight after breakfast, Steve’s mother took Nandipha shopping; she needed to stock up for a dinner party that night. Her son remained in his room with his nose in yet another book. It was at 9:30 that he heard his father’s voice raised in anger. Steve tiptoed to the open door of his room and listened to Sfiso’s side of a phone conversation that was taking place in the study.

“I told you never to phone me here!” said Sfiso. “You could blow the whole thing sky high by ringing me on this number. Use the cell next time, okay? If I’m going to pay for your silence, I expect you to stick by your side of the bargain.”

He was silent for a few moments, then burst out with: “Tanzania! I’m sick of hearing about Tanzania. I’ll have your R100 000 for you in a few days, then I expect you to go back there and never bother me again.”

Steve ducked behind the door of his room. He heard the front door slam, and the electric garage door whine. He ran to the window, and saw Sfiso’s BMW reach the end of the driveway and turn left onto the street.

For a crime novel fan, it all made instant sense; someone was blackmailing his father, about something which had happened in the struggle, while he was a teenager under arms iat an ANC camp in Tanzania. For a moment he didn’t know how to react. Then young Steve’s curiosity got the better of him. He thought of a plan, and put it into operation.

He sat at Sfiso’s desk and pressed the redial button on the digital phone. A woman answered, and Steve went into his act. “Good morning, Ma’am! My name is Simon. I’m carrying out a market research survey for Colgate Palmolive, and those who take part will be paid R200 and a basket of beauty products. Would you like to take part?”

“How did you get my number?” asked the woman.

“My supervisor gave me a list, ma’am. The number must have come from a database. You must have entered a competition or filled in a questionnaire and that’s how they got it.”

The woman laughed. “Okay, I don’t mind getting the basket and the money.”

In imitation of a telephone questionnaire he had once completed, Steve asked her about the skin care products she used, which took two minutes, then said: “Excellent. Now if I could just have your physical address details for the delivery of the basket and the envelope with the R200 . . .”

He recognized the address she gave. It was a block of flats he passed on his way to school.

Then Steve said: “I’d like to check the spelling of your name, in case we’ve got it wrong.”

“Khumalo, with a ‘Kh’ ” she told him. And it’s Elsie.” She spelled her first name for him.

Steve assured Ms Elsie Khumalo of 18 Oceanview Heights that a van would deliver her goodies the following week.

“That’ll be fine,” said Elsie, and Steve rang off.

Thirty minutes later he was at Oceanview Heights, keeping an eye on the lock-up garages in the yard behind the flats. They were numbered, so all he had to do was wait. Elsie Khumalo finally unlocked her garage just before noon. Thirty-something, Steve guessed, and she was wearing a short red dress that showed off her sexy figure, and shapely bottom. Tossing her long braids, she slid into a white Toyota whose registration Steve had memorised by the time it had vanished round the corner.

He locked his bicycle to a grille near the back entrance of the flats, went upstairs and knocked on the door of flat No 17. It opened as far as the safety chain would let it, and a short woman peered at him. Steve had prepared his speech. “My Ma sent me with a special invitation for Ms Elsie Khumalo, and if I don’t give it to her today I’m in big trouble. I’ve knocked and knocked, but she’s not in. D’you know where I can find her?”

The eye behind the door chain blinked, and the voice said: “You could try Sekunjalo Estates — that’s where Elsie works. She does show houses on Saturdays.”

Twenty minutes later Steve was outside Sekunjalo Estates, sitting under a shade tree, pretending that his front tyre had a puncture. Once again he was in luck; peering through the upended frame of his bicycle, he saw Elsie Khumalo emerge from the front door of the agency. A man was with her, and Steve concluded that he wasn’t exactly a customer – certainly not from the way he was patting Ms Khumalo’s provocative bottom.

Then Steve’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. He recognized the boyfriend! Roger Nkabinde was a close colleague of his father in the provincial legislation, and a former comrade during exile in Tanzania. Looking through the detached front wheel, he saw the couple get into Nkabinde’s 4 X 4 and drive off.

Steve pumped his pedals furiously all the way back home and told his mother that he’d been to the library and missed lunch because he’d had a puncture. He grabbed a sandwich and a glass of milk, then lay on his bed, thinking about what he’d learned. Nkabinde and Khumalo were obviously in cahoots, and they were blackmailing his father. If I were Sergeant Mickey Zondi, Steve pondered, what would my next move be?

That evening he had another surprise, when Roger Nkabinde turned up to Nandi’s dinner party – without his wife, who was visiting family in the country. There were several political comrades there, including Steve’s uncle Mfundo. They all complimented Steve on his good school results, and praised Nandipha for her pretty face and good manners.

Watching Roger closely, Steve saw how his father was genuinely fond of the man, often cordially putting his arm round Nkabinde’s shoulders. Roger is a snake in the grass, thought Steve. It seemed obvious that his father had no inkling of Nkabinde’s ill will. And Comrade Roger can only have a political motive, Steve reasoned.

After sleeping on his problem, he decided that if he could trust anyone, it was his uncle Mfundo. There was a whispered cellphone conversation and a few more kilometres by bicycle, then Steve met Mfundo at a convenience store on the outskirts of town. He told his uncle what he had learned.

“Leave this to me,” said Mfundo. “We have a traitor among the comrades, and we’ll deal with this the way politicians do. We’ll keep the whole thing out of the newspapers, never fear.”

The next Friday, Sfiso dined with his family, and seemed to be his old expansive self. He even announced that the Okavango trip was on again. Nandipha was jumping with excitement, but Steve wondered if the sudden change in his father’s mood had anything to do with Uncle Mfundo.

On Saturday morning his uncle picked Steve up and took him to look for bargains at a big book sale. On the way there, he explained to his nephew what had happened. “I spoke to my SAPS friend Silas. He took Elsie down to the station and interrogated her. He said that she was an accessory to a blackmail attempt, and that the only way to save herself from jail was to come clean. So she did.

“Elsie implicated Roger Nkabinde as the man behind the plot. He was jealous of your father’s political career and had devised a way to ruin his reputation. Steve, I’ll thank you to keep this to yourself because your mother doesn’t need to know – your father had a wife in Tanzania. I knew her, so did Roger. Sfiso abandoned her when he came home, and he’s not particularly proud of that. But these things happen in wartime; never judge a man for his actions in a situation you’ve never faced yourself.

“Nkabinde was having an affair with Elsie and he put her up to it. He coached her on what to say, including a few words of kiSwahili, so she sounded credible. She was demanding R100 000 from your father, claiming to be his Tanzanian daughter, born after he had left the country. That was nonsense – I checked the story out after Silas told me what they were up to. Sfiso’s first wife never had a baby. And she died 10 years ago; I found that out through my contacts in Dar-es-Salaam.”

Steve knew that his uncle had never lost contact with Tanzanian friends, and always took his annual holiday in Zanzibar. “What was she threatening to do?” he asked.

“She said that she’d go to the papers and make a big scandal out of it. But she was planning to do that anyway after he’d paid. The idea was to further Nkabinde’s political ambitions by smearing your father and putting him out of the running.”

“And now, Uncle?”

“We’ve taken care of it very quietly. Elsie will live in fear of arrest from now on, and we made sure that Roger’s wife heard about his affair. Roger will announce his withdrawal from active politics very shortly. In addition to Elsie’s testimony about the blackmail plot, we have some very harmful dirt on him from Tanzania. We had it filed away in case we needed it one day. You don’t need to know what it was, my boy, but it was nasty enough to force him out of politics, for fear that we would publicise it and ruin his name completely.”

The week after that, Steve sat in a makoro canoe, trailing his fingers through the crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta. Below him, he could see the river bed and streaming wreaths of waterweed in autumn colours. His father was in the canoe with him; a boatman poled Nandi and Nandipha alongside in a second makoro. His little sister was giggling gleefully, having the time of her life. But Steve was feeling a little bored, despite all the glories of nature that surrounded him and his happy, relaxed family.

What I really need, he thought, is a tough case to solve.