Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it's going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam. There used to be shortcuts you could take through the suburbs, but they've closed them off, illegally: gated communities fortified like privatised citadels. Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle-class paranoia in.
"I'm going to need my own ride."
"What's wrong, sweetie? You don't like my driving?" the Maltese says, but the jibe is half-hearted. He's been off-kilter since we left Huron's. Even the Mutt is subdued, although we're still hitting the green lights at speeds better left to rocket ships.
"Not particularly. But mainly it's that whole little dog thing."
"You just don't let up, do you?" Mark whines. For the first time, it seems like I've got under his flea collar.
"I need to do this alone. It's how my shavi works. I need to talk to people, to pick up a sense of her." This is all monkey crap, but it's not like they know any better. I'm hoping to stumble on a lost thing that will lead me right to the girl, but I can't count on it.
"I thought you could just see things?" Marabou says.
"Sure. If the person is in the room. But then you wouldn't need me. So this is how we're going to work. You can introduce me to people, but then you have to piss off. You can't expect someone to open up to a crowd. One's an interview, three's an interrogation."
"Ve hav our vays und means," Marabou says from the backseat – evidence that she may have a sense of humour after all.
"I don't need anything fancy."
"No. We wouldn't want you to be hijacked," Marabou says.
"That would be bad," I agree, but the words come out on autopilot, because I'm ambushed by the memory of the bullet that tore away half my ear before it ripped through my brother's skull
"A Kia, then," Maltese says, oblivious to my mental picture of Thando sprawled in the daisy bushes, my mom screaming, running down the driveway in her favourite dressing-gown with the Japanese print. Afterwards, she had the daisy bush ripped out, the grass concreted over.
"What?" I say, dragging myself back.
"Or something secondhand. A skedonk on its last tyres. A car that fits your lifestyle. The kind of thing you'd expect a disgraced zoo girl to drive."
"Gee, thanks. How about if it doesn't drive at all? We could get me a gutted shell on bricks. That would suit my lifestyle."
It takes us an hour and a half to get to Midrand and the golf estate where S'busiso and Songweza Radebe share a townhouse next door to their legal guardian, Mrs Prim Luthuli, all generously sponsored by their record label. Another ten minutes to get past the gate guard, who grills us and insists that we all step out of the car to be photographed by the webcam mounted on the window of his security booth.
"Animalists everywhere," Mark says through clenched teeth, as the guard raises the boom and waves us through. "They'd bring back the quarantine camps if they could."
"What do you call Zoo City?" I say.
"Just be glad we don't live in India," Amira says.
Mark revs the Merc unnecessarily. "Because who knew there was a caste below untouchable?"
The townhouses are variations on a theme of relentlessly modern, with trim front lawns and rear-facing views onto the golf course.
"I always get lost here," the Maltese says. The numbering system is completely insane and the estate is huge, so it takes us a few minutes to find H4-301. From the outside, it looks identical to all the other cookie-cutter townhouses with their perfect green lawns and chorus line of hissing sprinklers.
"Aren't there water restrictions?" I ask.
"Borehole. There are underground water reservoirs all over this area. Costs a fortune to tap, of course, but if you run a golf course…" he shrugs.
It would appear no one is home at H4-301, domicile of one Mrs Primrose Luthuli.
"Maybe we should have phoned ahead."
"We can talk to the boys in the meantime."
"Do they know?"
"No. And Mr Huron would prefer if we keep it that way." Marabou walks up to the door of H4-303, ignoring the intercom phone with embedded camera, and raps directly on the door. She waits. Then raps again. And then pounds. There's no way to tell if it's penetrated through the hip-hop bass emanating from inside.
Heavy footsteps shuffle towards the door, suggesting a senile hippopotamus in fuzzy slippers. A moment later, the door opens to reveal a very fat, very white kid wearing a very loud hoodie patterned with neon pink robot monkeys. He is scuffing at his nose with the back of his hand, his eyes are red and the reek of dope has soaked right through the hoodie into his pores. He's muttering as he opens the door, "Listen, you people need to chillax, man, the residents' association can get a restraining order – Christballs!" His bloodshot eyes open very wide as he registers the Marabou. He falls backwards into the house, barely recovering his balance before scrambling away in his dirty socks, yelping, "Dude, it's happening! They're fucking here, man! Break out the hardware! Shit!"
Marabou strides into the townhouse, right behind him. I'm about to follow, but Mark puts his arm across the doorframe, like a security boom and gives a little shake of his head. From inside, there is the noise of gunfire, strangely hollow, and then a lot of shouting.
"Get the guns! Get the freaking guns!" fat boy squeals.
Another voice, pissed off, bemused (pissmused?). "Hey! You guys aren't supposed to be here-"
And a third, weary, "Dude, there are no guns-"
Fat boy screams. "No, no, no, don't you even fucking, don't you come near-"
Then there is a dull crunch, followed by whimpering.
Mark lifts his arm, wafts his hand ostentatiously to usher me inside. I enter the house, cautiously. It's done up in a mash of just-moved-out-of-home boy décor. They've made a bit of an effort. The classic movie posters: The Godfather, Swamp Thing, Kill Bill, all framed. The katana above the giant flatscreen TV is wall-mounted, the trophy cans of beer stacked on top of the bookshelf are perfectly lined up so that the labels all face outward.
There are two boys sitting on the plush red couch. One is bare-chested in jeans, the fly unbuttoned. He has natty little dreads and a small gold loop in his ear, and he's pouting like he ordered strippers for his birthday and got clowns instead.
The other I recognise from glimpses of a music video. The boy-half of iJusi has big heartbreaker eyes, an upturned button nose and dimples. He'll grow out of it, maybe even in the next six months, but S'bu still has something beautifully childlike about him, and even his poser attitude can't undermine the sweetness that rises off him like fumes. He's practically edible.
They're both holding Playstation controllers, the source of the gunfire, I now realise, and they're both staring at Marabou and the fat kid, who is holding his bloody nose with both hands. The Stork cranes its neck forward to nudge her hand with its beak. She looks at the blood on her knuckles with forensic distaste, and wipes it off on the side of the couch. Dazed, the fat kid collapses into the La-Z-Boy.
Mark sets the Mutt down, picks up one of seven remotes on the coffee-table – by coincidence, it just so happens to be the right one – and kills the stereo.
Half-naked boy opens his mouth to complain, "Hey, that's-"
The Dog gives a shrieky little snarl and Mark says, "Shut up, Des. No one's talking to you." He perches on the edge of the low black teak coffee-table, pushing aside a gimmicky odour-free silver ashtray shaped like a flying saucer, and folds his legs. "Well, boys, this is quite the scene."
S'bu stands up and walks over to the ashtray. "I know, I know," he says, in the patented world-weary way of teenagers. He pushes down on the top of the UFO, which whirrs open with a buzz and strobing lights, and stubs out his joint.
"She bwoke by dose-" the fat white boy starts.
"Shut up, Arno. It's your own stupid fault," snaps the half-naked kid with the dreads.
"You know you're not supposed to be smoking, S'bu," Mark chides.
"Didn't I already say, I know, I know?"
"Can these two take a hike?"
He shrugs. "Arno and Des are my boys."
"We need to talk about your sister."
"Whad's up wid your sisduh, dude? You didn'd say budding about your sisduh. Whad's up wid da Song?"
"Shut up, Arno," Des and S'bu say in unison.
"'Cos she hasn'd been awound. Shid. When lasd did we see her?"
"Dude. When last did you see your arse?"
Arno looks hurt, although it's hard to tell if his hangdog expression is par for the course, or just a result of his eyes starting to swell.
"Is that the only contraband?" Amira says.
"Des is holding," S'bu indicates his friend. Des cringes, pulls out a bankie of weed and gingerly hands it over to Amira.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Mark asks.
"Nah, it's just, we thought you were-" Des says. "The cops."
"Zombies," Arno says at the same time.
"Why would you be worried about the cops?"
"I dunno. Just. 'Cos." He waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the ashtray. There's a couple of video game boxes lying next to it, starring flesh-eating undead and aliens. One, Grand Theft Auto VI: Zootopia, features a badass in a hoodie, packing a shotgun with a snarling Panther by his side.
"You know this means we're going to have to search the house. Again."
"Whatever," S'bu says, and slumps back into the couch, picking up the controller and going right back to his game, a first-person slayer. He's playing a mini-skirted girl with spiky green hair and a machine-gun for an arm facing down shambling hordes of particularly monstrous aliens.
"Do you want to go back to rehab, S'bu?"
"Doesn't bother me." But I notice he flinches, enough to throw off his shot. On screen, an alien manages to gore his arm, knocking his health down to 89 per cent.
"This is Zinzi December. She wants to talk to you. Help her out," Mark says.
"It's for a story for a magazine. Credo?" I bluff.
"Oh yeah?" S'bu isn't even vaguely interested, but Des perks up dramatically.
"Credo cooks, bro," he says, nudging S'bu's arm. "You're in Credo, you're in. Hells yes, lady. My boy is down."
"Great," I say.
"Whatever, you clear it with these guys," S'bu says, still intent on his game.
"Oh, we're 'down'," Mark says. He whistles for the Mutt. The Dog jumps off the red pouf and immediately starts sniffing around the room with great seriousness, tail wagging. S'bu lifts his feet for the Dog as it snuffles around the bottom of the couch.
"Just seeds, man," says Des.
The Dog follows its nose out of the room, Mark and Amira behind it. We can hear them climbing the stairs. A minute later, there is the sound of objects being thrown around.
"Shid, dude, whad if she breags by shid?" Arno says.
"Then I'll buy you more shit. Will you shut up? You're wrecking my concentration."
Everyone is quiet for a moment. Des and Arno watch me watching S'bu kill aliens. Upstairs, there is more thudding. Impulsively, I shrug Sloth off onto the recently vacated pouf, squeeze in next to S'bu, and pick up Des's discarded controller.
"This is two player, right?"
"Killing aliens with S'bu Radebe. That's profile gold. Credo will love it."
"They're Cthul'mites, actually."
"Whatever. They all bleed the same." From the player screen, I select the huge black guy character with Mike Tyson tattoos on his face and whipblades mounted in his forearms. Nice to see game designers keeping up the stereotypes.
"You any good?" S'bu gives me a sideways glance.
"Fucking terrible. It's all you."
"Oh great." But he cracks the slightest of smiles.
"Anybone wand a beer?" Arno says, heading for the kitchen.
"Get them now before they're all confiscated," S'bu calls out after him.
"I'll have one," I shout, gutting a particularly loathsome specimen with slobbery jaws and elongated fingers with my whipblades. I'm already down to 46 per cent health. It's only when Arno comes back, cracking the bottles of Windhoek open with his teeth, and sets mine, foaming, on the table in front of me, that I realise what I've done.
"Oh thanks, but actually, I'm gonna skip." I barely manage to duck as an arachnidy thing with a wobbly glutinous mass on top, like the bastard love-child of a jellyfish and a spider, spews a cloud of mechanical insects at me. Luckily S'bu is there to liquidise it, and most of the insect cloud terminates in shrieking sparks.
"Our beer too good for ya?"
"No, it's just that I don't particularly want to go back to rehab either."
"No shit, man," Des says. "That place is ill. All full of whining junkies with the shivers."
"Abnd zombies," Arno adds, hopefully.
"Don't you guys have some place to be?" S'bu snaps.
"No, man. We're here for the duration."
"Seriously, I think I heard your moms calling."
"Madoda. Take a hint and hamba."
"Fine. Come on, Arno, let's go aim for hadedas on the fourteenth hole."
"Bud I like hadedas."
"Gijima, fatty boomsticks. Can't you see I'm in the middle of an interview?"
Des grabs the set of clubs leaning against the wall by the fridge, and heads out, not bothering to pull on a shirt. He gives S'bu the finger as he goes. Arno follows, dragging his feet, but taking his beer with him.
"You guys don't strike me as the golfing type," I say, stomping frantically on the remaining clockwork insects. Unfortunately, not before one bites me. A red haze over my POV indicates that I've been infected. Antibiotics required. "Where's a medpack when you need one?"
"Yeah, it's all right. I prefer playing on console. Being Tiger Woods and shit? The medpacks are red plastic dropboxes, white cross."
My health is dwindling, one point at a time. I'm down to 22 per cent. "So which rehab did you go to?"
"Listen, just 'cos we're both in recovery doesn't make
us best friends or nothing."
"I did mine in prison. Involuntary."
"That where you get the Sloth?"
"Well, just before. But yeah, close enough. He helped me get through it."
"Got it." I steer awesomely muscular black guy over to the first-aid box handily wall-mounted next to a fire alarm. Nearly missed it, thanks to the red throb of my infection. 'What about your sister?"
"What about my sister?"
"I mean, was she there for you?"
"There for me?" He gives me a skew look, but still manages to frag the tentacle-faced frog creature that pads down the wall. "No. Song's there for herself."
"So you were just smoking weed? Little hectic to go to rehab for that."
"Ha. Tell that to Mr Odi."
"Uh-huh." From his earlier reaction, I thought maybe he'd been to Donkerpoort, or one of the other fundamentalist hellholes that rely on the scare-em-clean-withbeatings-and-a-Bible model of addiction therapy. It's straight cold turkey. Kids chained up outside, naked and shivering out the sweats. Methadone is for weaklings. And if you're really bad, they'll bring out the dogs.
"Wasn't so bad, I guess. It's the detox therapy the old man's into that kills me. Lentils and colonic cleansing and shit," S'bu says. "Boss!" A grotesque spindly torso lumbers towards us. I lash out with my whipblade, slashing right through its chest and into its ribcage. The split halves reel obscenely, trying to reconnect. Then the cracked ends of the ribcage start lengthening, until the split chest becomes a mouth full of gnashing teeth.
"Gross. How did Songweza find it?"
"How does the Song find anything?"
"You tell me."
"She was cool with it. You know what they say? I'm only here because of her. That she's the talented one."
"I don't buy that – crap! Sorry."
I've died, impaled on the spiny teeth, my corpse spewing great fountains of blood as the boss lurches around, trying to find S'bu's punky schoolgirl.
"Don't worry, I'll reload." S'bu pulls up the menu and instantly skips tracks on history back to a moment when we were both alive and well.
"Wish they had a 'restore saved game' for the real world."
"Tell me about it," he snorts.
"What point do you wish you could go back to?"
"The moment before I got my brother killed."
"Heavy," says S'bu, but I can tell he's impressed. And this is what I've come to, breaking out my worst personal tragedy to pry open a teenager. If I hadn't already hit my ultimate low, this would be a close contender.
"Before we signed."
"That's the worst thing that's happened to you? Seriaas?"
"I dunno, maybe we should have signed with someone else."
"Odi's a pretty intense guy."
"Rehab must have been really shitty."
"Yeah." He squirms. "It's more like his philosophy? It's worse than straight-edge. Like, there's no fun at all."
"You seem to be doing okay."
"Yeah, right," he rolls his eyes up at the thumping noises coming from above. "That guy needs to take a chill pill, you know? Maybe literally."
"You think you would have got where you are without Odi pushing you?"
"Nah, man, I appreciate that, it's the keep-it-clean crap. I'm fifteen, yo. We're not little kids anymore. And I'm not even that bad. Songweza's the one who lands us in the shit the whole time."
"Where do you think your sister is?"
"I dunno. Jolling with her friends?"
"Any friends in particular?"
"Hey, what's this interview about, anyway?"
"'Cos it sounds like it's about her."
"Can I level with you?" I say, jumping into the abyss.
"I've been hired to try and find your sister. The interview is just a cover."
"Fuck!" He flings his controller across the room. It narrowly misses the TV and smashes into the wall beneath the katana. The back pops off, spraying batteries across the floor.
"I'm just being honest with you."
"Oh, now you're being honest with me? So all that other bullshit was just, just… shit?" He looks like he's about to cry.
"No, I've really been to rehab. I really killed my brother," I say calmly.
"Whatever. Hey, lady, ever occurred to you maybe Song doesn't want to be found?"
"Or you don't want her to be found?"
"You are one whacked crazybitch. What, like I… I killed her or something?"
"Did you? No. I don't think that. But if she ran away with her boyfriend or whatever, it sounds like you wouldn't mind so much if she didn't hurry back."
S'bu shakes his head. "Lady, we have an album about to drop." He grabs a jacket slung over the back of the chair and heads towards the door, wiping at his eyes. "Where are you going?"
"Same place as Song. Out."
Sloth swats my arm in reproach. Like I meant to make the kid cry.
He storms out of the house, past Mark and Amira, who are sitting on the stairs, clearly listening in.
"And screw you guys too."
He slams the door.
"Didn't go so well, then, sweetie?" Mark says. His Dog pants happily, mocking.
"I've had worse interviews." This is true. The time I rocked up high to interview Morgan Freeman, for example. "You still trashing the place, or can I take a look?"
"Knock yourself out."
"Interesting ploy, the journalist," Marabou says, stroking her Bird's shrivelled head.
"You'd be amazed at how people open up when they think someone cares. Listen, don't wait up. After this, I'm thinking of taking in a round of golf. I'll expense a cab home."
Maltese sneers. "One day on the job, and she's too good for us."
I watch them out the door and then set to snooping. I skip the kitchen, which, surprisingly for a house full of teen boys, doesn't require Health Department intervention, and head upstairs, stepping over an amp at the top. There are more instruments lining the passage. A bass guitar, a tangle of microphone cable. Deck the halls. It's not clear whether they're normally out here, or part of Mark and Amira's redecorating scheme.
The first room is hotel-anonymous. A monotone motif with a black and white print of Namaqualand daisies above the bed. Guest room. I move on to the next: two single beds pushed to opposite corners. Clothes are strewn around the room, cushions have been thrown on the floor, the mattresses upturned, the camo-print beanbag leans on its side. There are posters of Megan Fox and Khanyi Mbau taped up, spreads from fashion magazines, all featuring menswear, and a business plan mapped out on a whiteboard underneath a sketch of an old-fashioned Nintendo video game controller and the words "War Room".
Fashion label launch Jozi fashion week, last week in August (realistic???)
Logo meet with Adam the Robot
Put out brief on t-shirt designs on 10and5.
Gorata Mugudamani to sort publicity?
Distrib!!!! Cross-pollinate w music stores?
Choose ringtone tracks. Re-mix?
SOLO?!?!? Heather Yalo
Can we do a fragrance? Market research.
I take notes. Move on.
Bathroom #1. A scramble of boy stuff. Five different flavours of deodorant, slick electric razors, electric toothbrushes, shaving cream, moisturising balm, exfoliator, anti-wrinkle eye cream – all for fifteen year-olds. A shower with a curtain featuring mildew and Hawaiian flowers. Sodden towels puddled on the Italian tiles. But otherwise remarkably clean. No skid marks in the toilet. Nothing living in the bath. Well stocked on toilet paper.
Bathroom #2. Dramatically smaller. The first hint of Song. A bottle of perfume on the counter. A punky black bottle with the name Lithium etched in white, like chalk scratchings. Blue nail polish. Eyeliner. More eyeliner. Four different kinds of mascara: coal, black, ultra-black and green. Eyeshadow in jewel colours. Gothpunk Princess Barbie. I spritz the perfume into the air. It smells like petrol and dead flowers. Sloth sniffs the air appreciatively. Clearly there are tones in there that human noses just can't appreciate. There is a glass jar of dried green leaves. I crush some between my fingers. It's fragrant. Not dope. Possibly muti. But for what? If only traditional healers would label shit. I wrap some up in a tissue and fold it into my pocket.
More helpfully, there is also an unopened pill container marked "Songweza Radebe" and "Flurazepam", "dosage: 1 per day with food." I look it up on my phone. It's a generic, used for anxiety or insomnia, especially for those with manic depression. The date on the label is Friday 18 March. So one day before she runs away, she gets a prescription for heavy-duty anxiety pills. Makes it seem like the script wasn't her idea. Interesting.
Next door is a full-on bedroom studio with egg-boxes studding the walls, mixing-decks, a computer facing the tiniest voice booth you ever saw, but at least semi-pro, if I'm any judge of expensive. And I am.
Adjoining the studio is the final bedroom. This has been creatively adapted. It's barely a metre across because a slapdash drywall has been erected in the middle of the room, forming the back of the recording booth next door. A double bed takes up most of the remaining space, under a block-mounted poster of Barbarella gazing into the depths of space, managing to look yearning and bold all at once. The cupboard has been thrown open, and clothes dumped recklessly on the bed among a spread of comics. There are more comics crammed into every available space on a long, low bookshelf that runs the length of the window. I skim through a few. Swamp monsters and teleporting houses, a muscled guy wearing the Union Jack.
A collection of movie monsters are posed all along the top of the bookshelf. On instinct, I pick up the one that looks like an upside-down dustbin with rows of studs down the side. As I do, it says "Exterminate!" and I nearly drop it. The head comes right off. There's a bankie of dope inside. And it's quality, if I'm any judge of substances. And I am.
I put the little robot's head back on, leaving the dope where it is, and replace him carefully between Arnold Schwarzenegger, metal chassis gleaming from under ripped plastic skin, and a manga girl with a mane of bright pink hair and boobs popping out of the leopard-print bikini that matches her tail and ears. But I do take one of the A5 soft-cover notebooks ferreted away between the comics. It says lyrics on the cover. And © S'bu Radebe. I roll it up and slip it into my bag.
As we're heading back towards the stairs, Sloth chirrups. "My thoughts exactly," I say, stepping back into the anonymous hotel room, which is not in fact a guest room. I open the cupboard and face an array of pretty preppy clothing. White sundresses and Afro-chic numbers by Sun Goddess and Darkie and Stoned Cherrie. Perfect for a hip teen kwaito queen. But not for a Gothpunk Princess Barbie. There are empty hangers, like a gaptoothed smile. Wherever Song went, whoever she went with, she had time to pack.
I ransack the room for lost things, digging under the mattress, in the back of the cupboard. There are only dust bunnies and some spare change, a hair band. Nothing lost. Nothing to lead me back to Song. Which means I'm stuck with the investigative journalist angle.
"Uh-oh. Fweag aled," Arno says nasally as I approach. He's looking considerably less stoned, likely courtesy of the pain in his nose, although his eyes are still bloodshot.
"Just ignore her. Maybe she'll get the hint." Des lines up the tee, once, twice, and then swings hard, neatly chipping out a clod of earth to join the other clods of earth gathered around his trainers, which are not regulation golf shoes. But then, neither are mine. I've left distinctive tracks across three holes: the common kitten-heeled hustler.
"You play golf now as well as Blood Skies?" Des says, mockingly.
"No. I hate golf. It's the genteel version of seal-clubbing, only not as much fun."
"What do you want?"
"Background stuff. Colour."
"Is bad a whide joke?" Arno bristles.
"As in painting a picture of iJusi's life. The people they hang out with, what goes down."
"You're bod gonna wide about de guns ding, are you?" Arno looks worried.
I laugh. "What was that?"
"It was the dope. He gets lank paranoid. Doos." Des smacks Arno upside his head.
"Don't worry, I'll make that incident 'off the record'." I take out my notebook and pen, and look at them expectantly. "So tell me about you guys. How do you know S'bu?"
They look at each other uneasily.
"If this isn't a bad time for you. Wouldn't want to interrupt your…" – I look down at the pitted grass – "gardening." They have the grace to look sheepish. "C'mon, I'll buy you a drink at the clubhouse."
Turns out Des and Arno already have a well-established reputation at the clubhouse. "Oh no," the waiter says, wearing a bowtie and gloves, like this is Inanda instead of Mayfields. "No shirt, no service. And no animals."
"Hi there," I say, sticking out my hand. "Zinzi December, journalist for The Economist. You've heard of The Economist, I trust? I'm interviewing these young men for a piece on the South African music industry, and I'd really appreciate it if you could accommodate us. I'd hate to have to include something in my piece on the appalling service at Mayfields."
"Do you have a business card?"
"Not on me." I give him my best fake-tolerant smile. He considers this, then breaks out his best fake-obsequious smile in return. "Right this way, madam. But please inform the young gentlemen that we won't be serving them alcoholic beverages. We confiscated their fake IDs the last time they visited with us."
We sit outside overlooking the gentle rolling greenery of the course. A shrike eyes our table, checking out the scraps. Also known as the butcherbird, it has a habit of impaling its prey on barbed-wire fences. People tend to think animals are better than humans. But birds have their own serial killers. Chimpanzees commit murder. The only difference between us is that animals don't feel guilty about it.
"How many of these people actually play golf?" I say, waving my glass of Appletiser at the townhouses.
"Dwo?" Arno guesses.
"Three max. It's like gym," Des says. "Everyone signs up and goes for like a month and then never goes again."
"So, who are you guys? Tell me about you."
"Um. Anoo Wedelinghaze. Dad's Har-he-duh-he-," he spells out, leaning over my notebook. Listening to him speak makes my eyes water.
"Redelinghuys. Got it," I wink. "How old are you? Arno?"
"And you, Des?"
"Twenty-two. And it's Desmond Luthuli."
"You go to school with S'bu?"
"I do!" Arno chirps. "Bud Des moved hewe wid him. He's da woombade. I jusd hang oud and sleeb over sombedibes."
"Moved out from where?"
"Valley of a Dousand Hills? In Kwa-Zulu Naddal? Dey, like, gwew up dogeduh, besd buds."
"I can speak for myself, Arno." There's something hungry about Des. I get the feeling reflected glory isn't enough for him.
"Sorreeee, dude. Shid."
"Yeah, so S'bu and Arno are only, like, friends from two years ago. They both go to Crawford," Des says. "But me and S'bu, we grew up together. Tiny little village called KwaXimba in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. So ja, when iJusi signed and S'bu and Song moved out here-"
"How'd they get signed?" I interrupt.
"You don't know?"
"I just want to get your take on it. In your own words." Actually, Maltese and Marabou filled me in on the way. There was a big hoo-ha after they aced the Coca-Cola Starmakerz auditions when they were still a tender fourteen; the youngest contestants ever to qualify, and from a desperately poor background that almost immediately made them the great bright nation-building hopes of the contest. But they had to drop out just before the semi-finals, after their grandmother died of lupus, barely two years after they lost both parents to Aids-related complications.
They were adorable. They were tragic. They were at least half-talented. And the song they chose to sing was a wrenching cover of Brenda Fassie's "Too Late for Mama". How could the General Public resist? There was a massive rallying around them. Radio 702 started a fund-raising drive to pay for granny's funeral costs and establish a trust for the new orphans. Coca-Cola put them up in a hotel for the duration of the competition, arranged minders to look after them, and gave them as much free Coke as they could drink. And hopefully paid for their dental work afterwards.
Sponsors leapt to look after them. They got free clothes, free medical aid and free tickets to rugby games, where they got to sing for the Springboks and the President. And they got signed before the semi-finals even went to air, and dropped out of the competition on the advice of their new label, Moja Records.
Des sums this up succinctly: "Like, they were in Starmakerz and then they got signed and Odi paid for them to move."
"Acdually, de creeby bird lady and be dog guy came do dalk to dem eben befowe."
"Dey said dey were dalend scouds."
"Yeah, but I told them they shouldn't just take the first offer they got, even if it was from Mr Odi Bigshot Huron," Des interrupts. "I got them to audition for Starmakerz instead. Worked out. They got more exposure and we landed with Odi anyway."
"And they just did what you said?"
"Yeah, I'm kinda like S'bu's manager."
"His mbom is deir legal guawdian," Arno pipes up.
"Yeah, that too. When they came to Joburg, we moved up with them."
"Mrs Luthuli. Right. So, where is your mom? Is she okay with you guys smoking weed and drinking beer?"
"Yeah, she's really chill. We earned it, man."
"You mbean S'bu earned id," Arno interrupts.
"And where's Songweza in all this? I couldn't help noticing that the house felt very… masculine."
"Song's a sduck-up bidch," says Arno, with all the venom of someone who has tended a secret crush in the basement of his heart, only to be met with a sweetly patronising pat on the cheek the moment he brought it out into the sunlight of her attention. The seedling might have been burned, but that doesn't mean it's dead.
"Shut up, Arno. Song has got her own thing going on. She's only there a couple of nights a week. Maybe."
"And the rest of the time?"
"Who knows? Who cares?"
"Shouldn't your mom care? Considering she's the official guardian?"
"She cares. She looks after those two better than their own family."
"Buncha money-sucking vampires. But that's private. Off the record, hey?" Des jabs his finger at me, just like a real manager, all grown-up.
"No problem," I soothe. "So tell me about this management gig, Des. What does that involve?"
"I got some stuff going with the clubs, some sponsorship deals, and me and S'bu are working on a clothing label for men. Controller."
"But not Song?"
He ignores me. "T-shirts and accessories, but quality stuff, hey. None of this cheap rip-off crap. Got some stores that are interested. The Space. YDE even. It's not just about the music anymore, it's about the brand. You gotta be smart. CDs don't count for squat. It's all about the cellphone downloads."
"Wow. You want to be my manager too?"
"Depends." He assesses me seriously, for the first time. "What you got?"
"Not a whole lot, let me tell you. How about you, Arno?"
"No, shit-for-brains, the other fat white boy." Des smirks at me as if we're in on this together.
"I jusd, you know, hang oud."
"What do you enjoy most about him?"
"Uh. He's weally funny? And cool. And he's weally good ad gambes."
"He seems pretty tense about his sister, though?"
"Ag. They fight a lot, but they love each other. They're just pulling in different directions and S'bu's kind of… sensitive," Des answers, getting antsy at no longer being in the spotlight. "Are we done here?"
"Yeah, okay. I might want to check in with you guys some other time though, if that's cool? Here's my card."
I hand over an old card to each of them, from FL. Cringingly, it reads:
ZINZI DECEMBER WORD PIMP
That's just the kind of cocky idiot I was. "Wordsmith" was too wanky. But why I couldn't have just gone with "writer" or "freelance journalist", only my cocky idiot FL self knows. At least I managed to keep my old number.
"What's a word pimp? Like you rent out words by the hour?"
"For dodgy assignations in tacky motel bedrooms. Yeah."
"That's so random."
"I'm planning to get new cards."
"As your manager, I'd say that's a very good idea."
"Yeah. Id's jusd… lambe," Arno says.
"I'll take it under advisement. Thanks."
When I get back to the townhouse, there is a red Toyota Conquest parked outside, with the boot open as if ready to swallow the woman who is leaning into it to retrieve the shopping bags inside.
"Give you a hand?"
"Ngiyabonga, sisi," says Prim Luthuli, emerging from the car. She manages to contain her double-take at seeing Sloth, and hands over three bags in each hand, loaded with two-litre soft drinks and frozen mini-pizzas and chips. She is in her late forties, a large mama in a floral skirt and an over-bleached white blouse.
"Just a guess. Teenage boys?"
She smiles wanly, but there's a tightness to her face. "I try to cook healthy for them, but, hei, teenagers are difficult."
She fumbles open the lock, while balancing four bags, and bumps the door open with her hip, revealing a mirror layout of H4-303. The walls are a warm yellow, leading into a bright red kitchen with a corkboard against the wall, plastered with family photos and news clippings featuring iJusi.
I set the bags down on the counter, nearly knocking over a vase of white roses which Mrs Luthuli deftly saves without comment.
"Do you live in the complex, dear?" she asks, opening the fridge and shelving a pack of strawberries, the milk, carrots, chicken pieces, tomatoes. "I don't think we've spoken before?"
"My name is Zinzi December. Odysseus Huron sent me to talk to you about Songweza."
She closes the fridge door and sits down heavily on one of the bar stools attached to the breakfast nook. She knots her hands in her floral skirt. She is clearly upset.
"You? Why hasn't he called the police?"
"You tell me."
She sighs heavily. "He thinks she's playing games. But even if she is, she could still be in danger! Who knows where she is. She's been gone four days." She starts sniffling.
For the second time in an hour, I've managed to make someone cry. At Sloth's urging, I go over and put an arm around her, awkwardly.
"It's going to be okay," I murmur. "It's going to be fine. Look, this is going to sound a little strange. But do you have anything of Songweza's she might have lost? Something with sentimental value? I don't know, a favourite earring that fell behind the couch? A book or a letter? A sock, even?" I'm clutching at straws or, worse, laundry.
"No. I don't know what you mean. I don't have anything like that." She looks at me like I'm crazy.
"Okay. How about her phone number?"
"I've been trying it every day. It just goes to her voicemail."
"Can I try it?" Because wouldn't it be crazy if she answered? Easiest money in the bank ever. But as predicted, it kicks straight to voicemail.
"You know who this is. If I feel like it, I'll get back to you." The voice is sassy, sexy. Even with the faux-bored veneer, it comes through like a dare.
It's followed by the automated network pre-record, a decidedly less enticing voice: "This mailbox is full. Please try again later. This mailbox is full. Please try again later." Okay, so it's not going to be that easy. Of course, just because it's on voicemail doesn't mean that she's not using the phone to make calls.
"Do you have any idea where she might have gone? No other relatives? No close friends she might be bunking with?"
"I called her friends from school. Nonkuleko. Priya. They haven't seen her."
"What about her friends outside school?"
She looks at me blankly. "No, I…"
"Never mind. How long have you been the twins' guardian?"
"When their grandmother died, she wrote in her will that she wanted me to look after them. We were neighbours. But I would have anyway. It's traditional to look after orphans."
"It's hard. I get stressed. All the Starmakerz nonsense. The city, all the parties, warra-warra. It's a bad influence,
Joburg. But they're good kids."
"I get the idea that the boys don't know about Song. I told them I was a journalist, don't worry."
"Des knows. My son. Did he mention…" She looks to me for acknowledgment that I'm up on the family ties. "He said I shouldn't tell them. They're young. They're emotional. Especially S'busiso. He takes everything to heart."
"I think he gets bullied at school. He doesn't tell me, but sometimes he comes home with bruises. And what if something has happened to her? How would they deal with it? It's better that they don't know. They shouldn't have to carry the worry. I told them she's visiting a friend."
"What is she like, Songweza?"
"She's smart, very smart. A's at school. But she's not like S'bu. She's popular with the girls. And the boys too," she says, with a little grimace of concern.
I'll bet, if that voice is any reflection of the rest of the package.
"Does she have a boyfriend?"
"Oh no." She looks shocked. 'Song would tell me. We have an agreement. No boyfriends until she finishes high school."
"Would you say she's happy?"
"Sometimes it feels like Songweza is angry at the whole world. But she doesn't really mean it. She just has her ups and downs."
"Which is why she's on medication?" She seems confused. "No, I don't think so."
"Nothing? Not even homeopathic? Muti?"
"Oh yes. Yes, she sees a sangoma once a month. They both do. He gives them treatment to help with the stress. All this stress of being famous."
"I'm slightly – concerned – that you might not know as much about the kids as you think you do."
"We talk all the time. I cook dinner for them every night. Make their lunch for school. We go to church on Sundays."
"You know they're drinking beer? Smoking weed?"
She twitches and then looks at me with frank appeal. "They're just letting off steam. They're good kids. Don't tell Mr Huron. Please. They're good kids."