Mandlakazi is not just fat, she's enormous. Her belly rolls have belly rolls. She's chewing her way through a bag of vegetarian samoosas, one hand on the steering wheel, the other dipping into the bag and back to her mouth like an assembly line, as she drives us through to Cresta to meet the Witness. Sloth takes to her immediately, although perhaps that's just the butternut samoosas she keeps plying him with.
The Witness phoned this morning while I was checking out airline charity cases, claiming to have seen the whole thing. Dave phoned me to let me know, and I've insisted on coming along.
"Dave said you been hanging out with the juicy babies," Mandlakazi says through a mouthful of samoosa. It takes me a second to figure out that she's talking about iJusi.
"Yeah. I was doing an article on them."
"Past tense? Too bad, koeks. Dave tell you I was the gossip columnist past tense for the Sunday Times?"
"He mentioned it."
"He mention why I got fired? I got so big I filled up the social pages all by myself." She roars with laughter. "No, I'm kidding. I got sick of it. That stuff is cancer. All that celebrity bullshit, it'll eat you alive if you let it."
"And the crime beat won't?"
"Way I figure it, covering the celebrity beat is like dying from a nose job turned gangrenous. Or cancer of the arse. Just a stupid way to go. Give me a good headshot or a fatal stabbing. At least that's worth something. So what's your thinking on this unholy mess? Someone with an anti-animal vendetta and a panga to grind?"
"It's muti murders."
"If only! Screw Slinger and his fake puppy dog, we'd be riding the front page for a week. How do you figure?"
"Two murders in the space of the week. Both animalled. Both bodies found with no trace of their animal in sight."
"And you know these two murders are related because…? I mean, on the one hand we got your homeless guy, necklaced. On the other, we've got a very nasty case of the stabs. Doesn't sound like the same M O to me, and baby, believe me, I got the hots for the serial killers."
"I got an email."
"From the killer?"
"From the victims. Ghosts in the machine. Their own special brand of lost things."
"Which is your bit, right? The lost things thing?"
"It's my bit," I confirm.
"But how do you know it's not just sick for kicks?" Mandlakazi wipes her fingers on her jeans.
"I met some junkie kids behind Mai Mai with a Porcupine. They'd cut off its paw to sell it for muti. They offered to do the same with Sloth. Someone's buying." But then, someone's always buying in this city. Sex. Drugs. Magic. With the right connections you can probably get a twofor-one deal.
"Muti from zoos?" Dave whistles appreciatively. "That's got to be expensive."
"Killing kids for muti is expensive," I correct him. It doesn't happen a lot, but every year there are a handful of cases that make the papers: prepubescents murdered and harvested for body parts. Lips, genitals, fingers, hands, feet. The more they scream, the more powerful the muti, although the morgues have a brisk backdoor business going too. A hand buried under your shopfront door will bring you more customers. Eating a prepubescent boy's penis will cure impotence.
"People miss kids. Zoos, especially homeless ones, streetwalkers, the ones nobody will miss, probably won't even notice they're gone. I don't know if that's expensive."
"Risky though," Dave says.
"Probably worth it," Mandlakazi says. "People pay a pretty penny for rhino horn or perlemoen, and that's before you add mashavi in to the equation. Animals are already some heavy magic shit. Mix that up with muti and who knows what you can do? I sure don't. But it would be a great story, let me tell you."
We meet the Witness at an airy coffee shop on the lower level of the mall. She is sitting right at the back, curled up miserably in a booth. She's tiny, barely fifteen, with hunched shoulders that speak of a lifetime of making herself as unobtrusive as possible.
"You Roberta?" Mandlakazi asks, sticking out her hand to shake.
The girl gives a little nod so quick you'd miss it if you blinked. She doesn't extend her hand. She points at me and says, "Just her."
"Baby, I'm the reporter, you want to talk to me. I can send these other people away if you want to keep it private."
She shakes her head. "Just her."
"Zoos got to stick together, huh. Fine. We'll be at the table outside." She hands me her Dictaphone, disgruntled. "It's the red button on the right."
"Like riding a bicycle."
I emerge forty minutes later and take a seat at Mandla and Dave's table. "Okay, first up, she says no police. Not yet. Maybe you can talk her round. Second: she's badly scared. Too scared to go home. I need one of you to put her up for a couple of nights."
"Why can't you?" Mandlakazi says.
"Because I live in her neighbourhood. Where the murder happened. To her friend, who happened to be a prostitute like her."
"She can stay at my place. For the night, at least. We can make a plan tomorrow. The paper can put her up in a hotel if this story is going to go somewhere. What did she say about the murder?" Mandlakazi is practically choking on her eagerness.
"You should probably hear it for yourself. I made a note of the timecode on the most useful quotes for you," I pass her a napkin annotated with a ballpoint pen I borrowed from the waiter.
"Well look at you, intrepid girl reporter."
"Worth more than an "additional reporting" credit?"
"Depends on what's on the tape."
I skip to 05:43 on the Dictaphone. They have to lean in to hear Roberta's voice, barely a whisper, over the grind of the espresso machine, the clank of cups.
ZINZI DECEMBER: Okay, I just want to go back a minute. What exactly do you mean, "like a spook"?
ROBERTA VAN TONDER: I'm telling you! Like there was no one there. One minute she's bending down to fix her shoe, that heel was giving her trouble all night, and then Pah! Pah! Pah! Pah!
In the coffee shop, she stabbed at the air, her face contorting unconsciously.
RVT: [contd] There is blood opening up all over her. Her head, her arms and she falls back against the wall, blood spraying everywhere. Psssssh! But Pah! Pah! Pah! More cuts. Blood! And she's on the ground, holding her head and screaming, but it's Pah! Pah! Pah!
ZD: How did her Sparrow react?
RVT: It's flying all over like it's crazy. Shoooo shoooo. Flying this way, that way.
ZD: Like it can see the spook?
RVT: Like it can see the spook.
ZD: Like it's attacking the spook?
RVT: I don't know. I don't know.
ZD: And you didn't see what happened after that?
RVT: No. I run. I run and run and run until I think my heart gon' explode.
ZD: I'm sorry, I just need to check that I understand. You couldn't see anything or anyone. No shadows. Nothing visible at all?
RVT: No, no, nothing. Well, maybe a grey. Like a shadow. Like a demon. An invisible demon!
"Oh this is gold, baby. This is gold," Mandlakazi says.
We spend the next few hours transcribing the tape and knocking it up into a rough.