"Can I just say, wow! I am so surprised you called!"
Maltese is driving up Empire at a fair clip, about 50 kays over the speed limit in an old Mercedes in '70s gold, with the Dog on his lap, head out the window, tongue flapping. They insisted on picking me up, even though it would have taken half the time if I'd caught a taxi.
"Mm. We thought we were going to have to hunt you down," Marabou says from the back seat. Her bird flexes its wings and refolds them, feathers scraping the roof. The car isn't really built for carrion-eating storks needing to stretch to their full wingspan. There is a horrible smell in the car, a sweet and rotten undertone to the scent of leather and the Maltese's citrusy cologne. He notices me wince and mouths the words "Bird breath" with a wrinkle of his nose.
Sloth makes a grumbly sound in the back of his throat, his claws padding my arms like a cat. This is why I can't play poker. Nothing like having a giant furry tell to ruin your bluff. I try to keep my grip on the door handle casual as the car races up Empire and barrels through another orange light. Sloth buries his face into my neck. I focus on the newspaper headline posters to fight back carsickness. CORRUPTION CASE POSTPONED. HOMELESS MAN BURNED TO DEATH. AIRPORT DRUG BUST.
"I still don't like little dogs," I say.
"That's okay," says Maltese says, remarkably chipper. "You won't be working for us anyway."
"I might not be working for anyone at all. This is just a look-see."
"You're such a tough guy. I love it."
We pull up to a boom marking the entrance to a gated community. The uniformed guard has a Rat in his pocket, its pink snuffling nose poking out just above the Sentinel Armed Response logo. Zoos do okay in the security sector, especially with Sentinel, which is the largest and therefore, as a matter of practicality, the most open-minded armed-response company in the city.
The Dog bristles, and as the guard leans down to look in the car window, it springs up, in a frenzy of yapping and snarling. The Rat blinks at the Dog, whiskers twitching, but it doesn't budge.
"Down, biscuit! I'm sorry, Pierre. You know how excited he gets."
"It's João, Mr Mazibuko. But it's no problem."
"Gosh, I'm sorry. You'd think I'd remember such a handsome boy. I promise I won't forget again." He looks at the guard calculatingly. "I don't suppose you can sing, by any chance?"
"Mark." The Marabou's voice is sharp and low.
"No, of course not, how silly of me. Never mind, Felipe.
João. Whatever your name is. Can you let Mr Huron know we're here? If you don't mind doing your job, sweetie?"
"Yes, sir." Unfazed, the guard takes a smart step back from the car, speaks into his radio and then raises the boom to allow the Mercedes through. There's something about the way he does it, a staccato snap to his movement that says ex-military. That's the thing about Africa. There are a lot of wars. A lot of unemployed ex-soldiers.
The car pulls away, a little more vigorously than required, under the boom, over a speed bump and into the rotten heart of leafy suburbia. The suburbs are overshadowed with oaks and jacarandas and elms. Biggest man-made forest in the world, or so we're told.
The grassy verges on the pavement are more manicured than a porn star's topiary, running up to ten-metre-high walls topped with electric fencing. Anything could happen behind those walls and you wouldn't know a thing. Maybe that's the point.
"Huron. Odi Huron? As in the bigshot music guy?"
"The producer, yes," Marabou corrects me.
"As in Lily Nobomvu."
"A tragic loss."
"Bit of a Howard Hughes thing going on there."
"He has a condition," Marabou says, with an elegant half-shoulder shrug that her Stork imitates, like an avian Siamese twin on a one-second time delay.
We turn down a cul-de-sac, past an open plot, wildly overgrown and worth five million at least, and pull up outside a comparatively low brownstone wall overgrown with ivy, real ivy. The ironwork gate reveals rolling lawns leading up to a Sir Herbert Baker stone house, which must date back to the early 1900s, with a small rugged hill or koppie rising behind it. It sticks out in this neighbourhood like a hairy wart on the face of cool modernity.
"And a lost thing," I press.
"Person," Marabou corrects.
"And this person is…?"
"Oh, sweetie. Patience is a virtue. Virtue is a grace-"
Marabou chimes in, the old rhyme sounding weird in her East European lilt: "Grace is a little girl who never ate her face."
"Washed her face," Maltese corrects automatically. They have the well-grooved antagonism of siblings or a long-time couple. Marabou ignores him, and he continues, "He's a wonderful man, sweetie. You'll like him."
"No little dogs then?" I say.
"Definitely no little dogs." Maltese presses a remote and the ironwork gate creaks open to allow us entry to the sprawling property.
We drive round the side of the house to a newly built four-car garage squatting in ugly counterpoint to Sir Herbert Baker. One of the doors is open, revealing a wellmaintained Daimler in dark blue with wood panelling. Clearly Huron travels in style, which is funny, because the impression I had was that he didn't travel at all. A heavy in a chauffeur's hat is washing down the rims of the wheels. He stands up when he sees us approach and indicates to Maltese to park on the left. Then he takes the bucket and stalks away into the garage, slopping soapy water in his wake.
"Friendly isn't in his job description," Marabou says. She opens the back door and slides out of the car, cradling the Stork's naked head against her chest to prevent it hitting the door-frame.
Maltese stays behind, drumming the edge of the steering wheel with his thumbs. "You guys go ahead. I'm going to see if John can't give the Merc a bit of a spit and polish while he's got the bucket out."
"His name is James," Marabou says.
"Whatever. I'll catch up."
"The entrance is this way." Marabou leads me round the side of the garage and up the sweep of driveway to the house. Close up, the property is practically derelict. There are weeds with thorny leaves and dandelion heads nudging up between the paving stones, setting them off kilter. The rolling lawns flanking the driveway are dry and yellowing, patrolled by a lone ibis, poking around for bugs in the grass. The tennis court far down near the bottom of the garden has holes in its fence and cracks in the concrete. The net sags over the centre line like a beer boep on an ageing athlete. The scent of yesterday-today-andtomorrow hangs heavy in the air, the purple and white flowers in late bloom. Sloth mutters in the back of his throat. I know what he means. It feels abandoned.
I needle Marabou for the hell of it. Plus, I'm curious. "So what does 'procurements' mean exactly? Corporate headhunting? Rare antiquities? Hostage negotiation?"
"It can mean anything you want – a lot like your line of work, Ms December." The Stork makes a guttural croaking, throat sac jiggling.
"Oh, come on. What were your last three jobs?"
"Discretion is one of our guarantees. As it is yours, I hope?"
"Money makes all things possible," I agree. "So, you're not even going to give me a hint?"
"We are like an exclusive concierge service. We do what the job requires. For Mr Huron we have escorted musicians on tours and facilitated deals, most recently with a German distributor, where we accompanied the artist to Berlin."
"Sounds more like A amp;R than 'procurements'."
"Before this, we smuggled a shipment of seventeenthcentury crucifixes out of Spain in a container packed with ceramic tiles."
"Maybe. Maybe I am lying to get you excited. How would you check?"
She presses her finger to the doorbell. The door is a dark heavy wood with a stained glass rosary window. Inside the house, a chime trills and echoes. A moment later, the door swings open, revealing a woman in a cardinalred pantsuit and a blonde bob. She seems delighted to see us, smiling like she's had a sunbeam shoved down her throat. "Oh, wow, hey. You're super early. Odi's just finishing up something."
"Carmen is one of Mr Huron's protégés," Marabou says in answer to my raised eyebrow.
"Oh yaa, sorry," Carmen says, giving me a flash of white teeth. 'Are you, like, media?"
She loses interest instantly, although her sunbeam wavers only briefly. "Well, come on in. If you want to head out to the patio, I'll bring you guys some tea."
She turns and clatters away on a pair of shiny red platform heels, leading us through a house that seems too fusty for such a bright and cool young thing to be breezing through. Faded Persian carpets laid over wooden floors mute the clop of Carmen's shoes. The furniture is overbearing, heavy teaks and yellowwood railway sleepers. Sloth hugs me tighter, and I catch a snatch of a rank mineral smell, like week-old vase water.
We pass a dining room where the yellowwood table has places set for twelve under a huge chandelier that resembles a wedding cake turned upside-down. Lethargic dust motes swirl in sunlight that has managed to penetrate the choke of ivy and leaded glass. Someone has left a scattering of chocolate raisins to fossilise under the table.
"Did Mr Huron just move in?"
"Oh no, he's been here for ages and ages," Carmen says. "I know what you're thinking, though. Like, it's not very rock'n'roll."
"You know, that is exactly what I was thinking."
"I know, right? It weirded me out at first, when I came to audition? But it's part of Odi's philosophy? 'Cos it's actually about the music."
"As opposed to?"
"The image. The glitz. The glamour. All that interference."
The passage is lined with framed plaques and awards, gold records, platinum records, SAMA and MTV and Kora certificates, with names familiar even to a music heathen like me. JumpFish. Detective Wolf. Assegai. Keleketla. Moro. Zakes Tsukudu. Lily Nobomvu. iJusi. Noxx. The
dates read 1981, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995,
1998. And then a jump to 2003, 2004, 2005. 2008. "What's with the hiatus?" "Mr Huron has other business interests," Marabou says.
"And he was sick," Carmen chips in. "But don't worry, he's almost, like, totally over it now."
We pass a study, set up with a video edit suite, surrounded by bookshelves lined with files and weird bric-à-brac. And then the passage ends abruptly in an authentically retro lounge with glass doors opening onto a bright patio overlooking the swimming pool. There is a hanging egg chair and a heavy silver coffee-table, only slightly scratched, hemmed in by low-rise chocolate brown leather couches. Two tall, slim speakers, designed to be fuck-off low-key, pump out syrupy R amp;B.
"Here we are," Carmen says, pushing open the glass doors onto the pool-side patio. She stoops to brush leaves off the cushions on the fussy ironwork chairs arranged around a matching table under a vine trellis. The very pretty view looks over and up at the koppie, which is covered in scrub brush and succulent aloes. There is a low bunker-style building with glass sliding doors across the way at the foot of the hill. Definitely not original Herbert Baker.
"That's where the magic happens," she says, wafting a hand sales-model-style at the bunker. "The Moja studios. If you ask nicely, maybe Odi will give you the tour." She winks, adorably. "Be right back!" and clip-clops away into the cool dark of the house.
The pool is an enormous old-fashioned square, with mosaic tiles and a classical water feature of two maidens pouring out a jug of water. But the tiles are chipped, the lapis-lazuli blue faded to a dull glaucoma. The brackish water is a vile green, a skin of rotting leaves cloying the surface. Lichen has crept over the two maidens. Moss clogs the folds of their robes and the crooks of their elbows, blanking out their features like a beauty mask gone wild. Like someone ate their faces.
I shrug Sloth off onto the table. He sprawls on his belly and curls his long claws through the ironwork curlicues. The Marabou folds herself into one of the dainty chairs, leaning forward so as not to put any weight on the Stork strapped to her back.
"You ever take him off?"
"It's a she. And only when I sleep."
"What happened to her legs?"
"She had a run-in with another animal. She came off worse. It wasn't a dogfight, if that's what you're thinking."
"I wasn't. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often. Herbivores and carnivores all mixed up together. We should probably segregate."
"Mmm," she says, her attention drifting.
"What was the book?" I say, just making conversation. But the Stork raises its head sharply, looking down its beak at me.
"The book?" Marabou is off-hand, in stark contrast to the Bird's reaction.
"One of your lost things." I concentrate on the strands, but this time the image is frustratingly blurry. I can't read the writing on the gun anymore or make out the detail on the gloves, and the book could just as well be a piece of old brick. I fudge from memory. "The cover is torn. The pages are mouldy and swollen with damp. Something about a tree?"
"Is that how your talent works, you can see things?" She looks amused. "How practical. I don't know what the book was called. But one of the other girls used to read it to us in the container."
"They shipped us over. Packed like tuna fish." She strokes the Stork's throat and it rucks its head in appreciation. "Some of the tuna fish died. I started a different life."
"I could try to figure out what the book is. If you wanted. You could get another copy."
"What if it is not as good as I remember? Some things are better left lost."
"I hope you're not talking about my girl!" Mr Huron, I presume, emerges onto the balcony with a flourish. He's not so much a barrel of a man as a bagpipe, all his weight loaded in front, straining a t-shirt that bears the legend Depeche Mode Rose Bowl Pasadena 1987. He's balding on top, but he's grown the rest of his hair and pulled it into a thin scraggly ponytail. The genuinely powerful, unlike the Vuyos of this world, don't give a fuck about making an impression.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. Amira. You're looking lovely. Botox working for you? Maybe you should try some on the bird. And you, you must be the new help," he says, engulfing my hand in his giant paws, like Mickey Mouse gloves. "Only kidding," he winks. "Mostly."
With a little moan, Sloth clambers off the table and into my lap. He's seeing what I'm seeing, belying the bigshot producer image – a black tumour of lost things hanging over the man. A tumour that's eaten an octopus, but the fat black tentacles have been amputated, so all that's left are stumps. Dozens of them, squirming obscenely.
It's one of the worst hack jobs I've seen. There are ways to cut the threads. A good sangoma can do it. But they'll eventually grow back thicker and coarser than ever. In the shadow of his black halo, his skin looks sallow, his jowls sunken, his eyes bright and flat.
"What's wrong with your animal?" Huron says, collapsing into one of the chairs and fingering a hole in his t-shirt.
"He's just shy around strangers," I say, stroking Sloth's head to calm him down.
"Amira and Mark brief you already?"
I have to force myself to look at his face rather than the writhing black stubs around his head. I concentrate on his fleshy lips, the large nose, slightly skew, as if he once broke it in a rugby game or a bar fight. "Actually, Mr Huron, I'm still waiting to hear what this is about. Before I make up my mind as to whether I even want to be briefed."
"Call me Odi, please. Short for Odysseus."
We're interrupted by Carmen holding a red plastic tray that looks like it was moulded out of the same material as her shoes. She sets down a clipboard and a pot of evilsmelling tea.
"Don't worry, it's non-alcoholic." Huron pours a cup and hands it to me with a smirk.
"You've done your research."
"Yes, I've heard all about your nasty habit. But it's not just you. Moja Records has a policy. No drink. No drugs. No neural spells."
"No interference." I take a sip gingerly. It tastes as foul and pungent as it smells.
"Buchu and mustard seed. Good for detoxing."
"Lovely." I smile and heap in five spoons of sugar. It makes the brew only marginally more tolerable. What does it take to get a decent cup of tea? "I'm not sure I can even help you, Mr Huron."
"Call me Odi. Really." He puts an envelope on the table. "Open it."
I do. Sloth cranes his head to see. It contains a cluster of crisp blue R100 notes. I put it back on the table.
"Two large, just to hear me out. If you like what I have to say, you take the job and consider this an advance. If you don't, you take the money, you don't repeat any of what I told you, we're all friends."
"This all seems very serious. Are you sure you have the right girl here?"
"Mark and Amira think so."
"Just in case I'm getting the wrong end of the microphone here – you do know I can't sing?"
"Like that ever got in the way of a pretty girl getting a record deal. Autotune is a beautiful thing." He laughs, but his eyes are cold. "Let me assure you, you are here for your other skills." He watches me closely. I take the envelope and slip it into my bag, ignoring Sloth scratching at my arm, the halo of black stumps waving around Huron's head.
"All right, good. Now, you're no doubt familiar with iJusi." He waves his hand impatiently at my blank look. "The twins? Song and S'bu?"
The name sounds vaguely familiar, another life glimpsed on the TV at Mak's, maybe on the cover of an old Heat magazine at the spaza shop. A boy and a girl. Twins. Beautiful. Wholesome.
Huron sighs, exasperated. "Well, you can do some research."
"Has something happened to them?"
"Officially, no. Absolutely not. Everything's just fine. They're keeping a low profile because they're in studio, writing new songs. The new album drops in three weeks. We've got a big party planned."
"And off the record?"
"Songweza is missing."
"Run away? Kidnapped?"
"Either is possible. She hasn't been home for four days, according to her house mother."
"Is that unusual?"
"You see the thing about iJusi, although you wouldn't know this, is that they're a little ray of sunshine in an ugly, ugly world." He pinches the corner of his lower lip and rolls it between his thick fingers. "They're good kids. Role models."
"And you want to keep it that way. No nasty real-world taint for Papa Odi's little girl."
"Amira said you had an ugly mouth." The stumps lash and twist.
"I prefer to think of it as a fast mouth. So, there's no boyfriend? Girlfriend, maybe?" I push.
"Plenty of time for that later."
"Because she's a good girl."
"You see. We understand each other."
"I don't understand why you're talking to me, rather than the cops or a private investigator. Four days is a long time. She could be dead."
"Now, Zinzi, that's not very discreet. Police. PIs. If the tabloids get a sniff…"
"I get it. You're making a mistake, but I'll take your money. How much are we talking?"
"If you bring her back before the official launch and intact?" He smiles thinly. I know what that means. Sweet. Innocent. Un-animalled. "R50,000." Sloth takes a sharp breath at the amount. All very serious indeed.
"Make it two hundred, I'm your girl."
"One fifty. Plus expenses. Don't worry, Mr Huron, I'll submit receipts."
The Marabou looks pained. Huron gives me a slow, evaluating look. The tentacles pause, like they're holding their breath.
"Odi, please." And we share a conspiratorial grin. Or maybe we're just baring our teeth at each other, like chimps competing for dominance.
"Odi? There's a phone call for you," Carmen pops her head out the door, plaintive, like she thinks we've taken up too much of his time already. She is cradling a black Rabbit, stroking its ears. It does explain the fossilised chocolate raisins in the dining room. Who knew that Odi Huron's eccentricities included cultivating a personal menagerie of zoos? I can't help wondering what she did
to get her Bunny.
"Ah, thank you, Carmencita," Odi says. "I think we're done here. Amira and Mark will brief you and make all the necessary arrangements. Whatever you need."
He stands up, all business, downs his drink and throws out the ice towards the pool. The blocks go skittering over the cracked tiles and plop into the water, sending greasy ripples across the surface to stir the leaves. By the time I look up, Odi is disappearing into the house. And I didn't even get the studio tour.
Sloth is pissed with me. I can tell by the way he clambers onto my back, stiff and cross. "You have a better idea?" I hiss at him.
"What was that?" the Marabou asks mildly, staring at the pool, at the lichen-blinded maidens and the ripples breaking at their bare feet.
"I was wondering if this is the best idea," I say. "There must be more qualified people."
"More qualified, but maybe less discreet. And harder to vanish if everything goes wrong."
"You know, I'm pretty sure no one mentioned any vanishing."
"You do this thing, you disappear. No questions asked. Back to Zoo City and your own small world."
"I see." But I'm thinking about her lost gun.
"Shall we? You should probably be getting started."
The Maltese is waiting in the car upfront. It's been polished and waxed to within an inch of its warranty. The interior is awash with pine air-freshener and just a hint of ammonia. The combination makes Sloth sneeze. Which means I was wrong about the guy. I was convinced "spit and polish" was a euphemism for sex. But I have no doubt that dear Odi is nailing sweet little Carmen sideways and backwards. Maybe even now.
The Maltese – Mark – seems eager to get going. The car is idling, he's already strapped in and the Dog is standing on his lap, its paws on the steering wheel. It yaps once, impatiently, like this is a Formula 1 pit-stop and we're holding up the race.
"How was that, sweetie? Was he everything we said?" Mark says, putting the car into gear as I close my door.
"And more!" I say, in chipper imitation of Carmencita. "I'm on the case and I've been put in my place."
"Don't take it personally, sweetie."
As the car pulls away down the drive, Huron appears in the doorway. I turn to look back over the headrest, past Amira and her creepy bird. He's rocking back on his heels, his hands embedded in the pockets of his jeans, just the picture of laidback cool. It's a junkie look. That desperately pretending that everything is hunky-dory, you're not stressed at all about anything in the world, when inside your jeans pockets, your hands are clamped into sweaty fists, fingernails leaving grooves in your palms. If Huron's grooves were an LP, they would be playing the Johnny Cash cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". And the tentacles would be waving along in time.