Timmy McOobo regained consciousness to feel a jet of unpleasant smelling warm liquid spraying down on him from above. He was lying, he guessed, on the floor of a police truck bumping along at speed over a badly surfaced road. He saw the same blackjacks who had raided Ochatingi township seated on the benches that ran along each side of the truck. Something amused them, and it didn’t him take long to discover that it was the spectacle of their Ridgeback police dog pissing over him. Ridgeback or not, instinctively he tried to aim a kick at it, still balanced on three legs as the stream of warm urine dwindled to a trickle. He found he couldn’t – kick it, that was, for his feet had been shackled, as had both his hands.
The dog handler jerked on the leash, causing the hound to lose its balance: and, thinking that McOobo was to blame, it turned on him, bared fangs at his throat. The mirth of the constables became uncontainable. One of them aimed a kick at McOobo’s stomach whilst another took a kick at the dog. That was not such a clever move because the Ridgeback redirected its malice towards the policeman’s leg, gripping it in a fairly meaningful hold. As its new victim leaped up and let out a yelp of pain the dog handler and another got to their feet to regain some control of the situation. At that moment the truck hit a particularly nasty pot-hole in the road, and three policemen as well as a police dog spilled down on top of McOobo who grunted, winded in the mêlée.
It was only when everyone had sorted themselves out that he realised that there was still one body on the floor, and that body wasn’t getting up in a hurry because it was the corpse of the constable who they were now alleging that he had shot. McOobo was manacled to it.
Some miles down the road the truck slowed and came to a halt. He heard greetings being exchanged, and he guessed they were making a rendezvous. That was confirmed when one of the policeman told him, “We’re at Tembisa. We meet police trucks here so, when we drive through Alexandra, we are escorted.”
They moved off again. From the ribald shouts from his captors, through the canvass at the back, he guessed they were now travelling in convoy, one truck leading and the other following close behind. He knew exactly where they were heading; and he knew where he would be spending the next night and probably quite a lot more nights: Modderbee, the high security penitentiary.
He couldn’t see if there was anyone up front with the driver – but from the relaxed attitude of the police in the back he couldn’t imagine that the Inspector was travelling with them. Gambon, he guessed, was ahead, somewhere along the road to Johannesburg, where he would make ‘preparations’ for their arrival. McOobo was not a sophisticated man but he was not a fool either: As far as the Inspector was concerned one of his men had been shot and for want of anyone better they had chosen to arrest him for it. Now all the inspector needed was to secure a conviction for the alleged crime.
“Tixo, help me now,” sweating freely, he prayed under his breath.
When the truck arrived, Gambon was already at the police station, waiting for it. He needed to make sure his prisoner was safely committed to Modderbee prison that night, in good time for interrogation first thing in the morning: He had a tennis match the following afternoon and he wanted to get the interview over with and get back to Pretoria in good time for it. But he had to look out whoever would do the interrogation, to prime the fellow on the information he wanted extracted from McOobo.
At the desk they told him that Sergeant de Voss was in charge of Modderbee’s infamous interrogation room on the following day – Gambon would probably find him down in the canteen.
De Voss was sitting by himself at a table, reading the pages of a comic book, as Gambon bought himself a ham sandwich and coffee. The perspiring black woman behind the counter handed him his change and pointed the interrogator out. Her look told him that she didn’t exactly idolise the man. He went across and seated himself in the chair opposite.
“Ja?” de Voss enquired, putting the comic down on the table, seemingly irritated by the intrusion. Gambon saw that the featured story he was reading – or, rather, following from the pictures – was something to do with a bull that didn’t want to do anything except smell flowers. As he introduced himself he couldn’t help thinking how alike Sergeant de Voss was to the caricature of the bull in the comic – although he could bet that de Voss didn’t go round Johannesburg smelling flowers. His Humpty Dumpty head was supported on a thick-set neck that defied all attempts to guess where the chin ended and the neck began; and beneath short cropped yellow hair his tiny blue eyes burned with the intensity of the jets of flame emitted by the Bunsen burners in the chemistry laboratories in school when he had been a kid, where he had been expelled for hanging mice by their tails over those flames.
“You’re getting a kaffir who I pulled in earlier for interrogation tomorrow morning, Sergeant,” Gambon told him.
“Ja, I’ve heard. He killed a cop in the street in Ochatingi didn’t he?”
“Actually I don’t think he did. But, if you can get him to say that he did – and sign for it too – then that’s fine by me…
“And while you’re at it, perhaps you can frighten him with the prospect of hanging from his dirty kaffir neck, and we can see if that persuades him to tell us how explosives are getting into the hands of the activists: because they are buggering up my promotion prospects by their operations on my patch. That, Sergeant, is what I really need to get from him.”
“You want him to say that his Grandmother fucked Nelson Mandela?” the sergeant asked. “You can bet I can get whatever you want to hear from him, Inspector…
“Although, if you’re squeamish about the way we do these things then you had better stay away from the Interrogation Room whilst I do it.”
“Geen verseker – no worry!” Gambon answered, emphatically. “I’ve seen you guys working on filthy kaffirs plenty enough. It doesn’t bother me.”
As far as Gambon was concerned at last he had nabbed someone who, when de Voss had finished with him, would stand up as an activist, his constable’s killer; and if the interrogator managed to extract anything else that led him to the terrorists he so badly needed to track down, that was a bonus. He guessed de Voss would be good at his job: He was in a celebratory mood and beginning to relax.
“You off duty now?” he asked the sergeant. “At a loose end? What say we hit the town tonight and have a couple of beers together?”
“Jong, you bet, Inspector!” enthusiastically de Voss, who didn’t have too many friends, replied. He lent across the table and nudged Gambon’s arm. “I know a whore house where the girls are clean. We might just raid it, give them some grief and take up a little hush money; and we can be very understanding and enjoy a complimentary screw on the house for our forbearance.”
Next morning, Gambon and de Voss each had a massive babbelas, a hangover of gigantean proportions, with parched throats, throbbing heads and searing bright lights behind their eyes.
In the Interview Room, McOobo was aware bright lights too – several of them shining down on him. In the blackness behind the lights, he could see nothing except vague shapes, the movement and voices of one, two, three perhaps, people across the table at which they had sat him. He was handcuffed to two blackjacks, seated on the bench, one on either side of him. Gambon’s voice, he recognised – and that of de Voss, who had already worked him over with a truncheon even before his breakfast of sour porridge and mouldy bread had been pushed through the cell door.
Clenching his teeth and screwing up the fists of his manacled hands he kept repeating to himself, “I will tell them nothing: I will tell them nothing.”
They had already given him a typed ‘confession’ which, as it was in English, he couldn’t read. He refused to sign it; and even after they had softened him up a little by punching him around the head a few more times he still refused to sign it.
He could hear his interrogators conferring quietly; and then without warning de Voss stamped a boot down hard on the tendon between his ankle and his bare foot. He doubled up before the two blackjacks jerked him back to the upright.
“So, if I were to accept that it was not you who shot Constable N’kola – if I were to accept that – then perhaps you had better tell us who did,” de Voss barked at him.
McOobo remained silent. He had slumped a little; and the interrogator signalled for the lights to be adjusted so that once more they shone into his eyes. Even blinded by the lights didn’t stop him seeing the glint on the barrel of the police revolver that de Voss had taken from out of his holster.
“I’m going to ask you the question just once more; and if you don’t give me a satisfactory answer then I shall shoot you…
“Again,” he said, his voice soft and menacing, “who shot Constable N’kola?” He raised the revolver so that it pointed directly at McOobo’s forehead, who couldn’t help noticing that the policemen on each side had sidled away from him, reluctant to have his blood and brains splattered over their uniforms.
He heard Gambon saying something and de Voss turning away to listen. Then de Voss put the revolver back in its holster and said, “The Inspector says that he doesn’t want me to shoot you until you have told us what you know about how the activists in Ochatingi always have so much explosive available to them…
Slumped, McOobo said nothing. De Voss stamped on his foot again and, as the old man involuntarily straightened, the interrogator stood up and smashed his fist into the side of McOobo’s face with a crack that told he had broken the old man’s jaw. Shrugging, De Voss pulled out the revolver again, pointing it; and McOobo was aware of the pressure from the policeman’s trigger finger causing the hammer to arc slowly back…
The click as the hammer fell on an empty chamber seemed as loud as the discharge of any shot, louder than the sound of his jaw being broken and as loud even as had been the explosion in the mine.
De Voss spat at him, “Doff! Just because that chamber was empty doesn’t mean the next one will be empty too. We play Russian roulette here, you understand.”
McOobo didn’t know what Russian roulette was. He was shaking as he saw de Voss squeezing the trigger again; and then he heard the sound of someone else coming into the cell. Addressing Gambon, the newcomer was saying, “Meneer, sir, your assistant Willi Hagel is on the phone… says he needs to speak to you urgently.”
Gambon always thought that Willi Hagel was a prick – and the Inspector had better things to do right now.
“Tell him I’m busy at this moment. Say I’ll call him back.”
“He says it is urgent,” the messenger told them, “He says that you should know that a survivor from the mine has been found. He turned up at Hadeles and it is said that he escaped by following the river all the way down through the mine.”