I’m an ex-Murder and Robbery Detective Captain from South Africa. I write from experience. From the heart. And the readers will feel that. I take them on an authentic journey through a labyrinth of bloody corridors. Thrilling and fast-paced. Gripping.
Pretoria, South Africa
Monday, 20 August 2012
Emily Thomas darted out of the busy boutique into the steady flow of passing shoppers.
Please don’t let him see me, she prayed, glancing back over her shoulder. She had faked being sick at school and then told him she needed to pick up a dress from the mall.
The man in the dark suit was chatting to one of the young salesladies. He stopped mid-sentence and searched wide-eyed for her. She lost sight of his panicky expression as the crowd swept her away.
Emily knew he would come after her. He always did. That’s why she’d picked the busy mall to make her move. It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to get away from him. He was ever-present, always lurking in the shadows watching her. But the baggy coat wrapped around her frail shoulders covered up the bright blue school uniform, and the hoodie veiled her recognisable blonde pigtails.
“Let’s see how good you really are,” she muttered and headed for the rear exit. Outside, the black minivan stood exactly where Sebastian said it would.
Dear sweet Sebastian. She smiled. He was the only one who gave a damn about her. Her parents didn’t care. All she wanted was for them to love her for who she was. But it didn’t matter anymore. Sebastian was her friend. No, he was more than that. He was her first true love. It was their little secret. Nobody suspected anything. How could they? She’d promised she wouldn’t tell anyone.
Emily pulled on the handle of the minivan’s side door, sliding the panel halfway open. Her smile vanished. “But you’re not Sebastian…” A man with brutal eyes grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her inside. He clamped a sweaty palm over her mouth before she could scream and then slammed the door shut.
“Go, go, go!”
The minivan leapt forward on screeching tyres, flinging her to the back. She landed awkwardly with the attacker on top of her. His weight drove the air from her lungs in a loud gush. She was stunned and struggled to breathe. A jolt of fear paralysed her momentarily before panic set in. Then she lashed out, clawing at those brutal eyes, digging her nails deep into his flesh.
“You fucking bitch,” he cried out, relaxing his grip slightly. Emily sunk her teeth into the soft flesh connecting his thumb and forefinger. She tasted the metal of his blood and her own fear, choked and opened her jaws to breathe.
The attacker slammed a fist into her face. The force of the blow snapped her head back, knocking her unconscious.
Nick Crowley was in a foul mood. It was one of those days. At breakfast his wife chewed his ear demanding they move back to the United States. The violent crime rate in South Africa had her in a whirl.
“It’s a political cesspool. They’re barbaric,” she griped. “I don’t feel safe. I won’t allow my children to grow up amidst all this death and mayhem. Get a transfer back to Texas today or I’m leaving and taking the kids with me.”
That was the end of the discussion. It always was with her. If she made up her mind he had no further say in the matter.
A marine stationed at the front gate of the American Embassy in Pretoria saluted as he drove in through the checkpoint.
Nick narrowed his steel grey eyes in frustration as he took the elevator from the basement up to his office. “I can’t just leave,” he mumbled. There were too many factors to consider. He was methodical, a meticulous planner. Someone who prepped his ideas in the finest detail before executing them. It took fifteen years of slavish dedication before the appointment befell him.
CIA Agent in Charge, International desk, Africa.
It was a big deal. If his wife hung in there eighteen more months they’d be back on home soil and he’d have a corner office at CIA Head Office in Washington.
Now she wanted him to give it all up. How could she be so unreasonable? It’d taken him three long years getting to know the customs of the locals and learning their ways. He’d even started to talk the way they did. And then just when he was adapting…Change. He hated change and the ever-changing world.
Nick popped open the lid of a medicine bottle. He tipped two pills into his mouth and swallowed. “Damn ulcer’s killing me,” he murmured, feeling the slow burning ache churn his gut.
Then his cell phone rang. It was Tango 5.
She’s gone. Someone took codename – Goldilocks. A black minivan. Nick’s mind went numb for a moment.
“GPS the tracking device and follow the minivan,” Nick said. “Contact me when you have a visual. I’m on my way.”
The elevator doors slid open with a ping. If something happened to her they’d crucify me. I’d be sent back to the States all right—as a janitor.
“Fuck,” he shouted. Men in dark suits ran to him. They searched his pale face for an explanation. “Goldilocks has been jacked. Get me a lock on her position.”
Jane Delaney, the mainframe operator, called up a street map on a montage of monitors. A red dot travelled west on the screens. “Got it, sir,” she said.
Nick crossed the room in long strides. He watched the dot power away from Menlyn Mall towards Pretoria City Central.
“Fools,” someone commented. “They’re running towards us.”
Why? thought Nick. Was this a random kidnapping? Didn’t they know about the necklace? Or were they trying to evade the helicopter by heading for cover into the busy central city?
“Tango 5’s in pursuit,” Nick said. “I want all mobile units on the ground. Move.”
A mob of CIA field agents rushed the emergency elevator and sunk to the basement.
Nick pointed at three men. “You, you and you, follow me.” He aimed for the stairwell, knowing what Jane was going to ask before she asked it.
“Should I inform him, sir? He’s bound to ask what the ruckus is about.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and scowled at her. “Don’t breathe a word. I’ll brief him later…hopefully she’ll be present. And no media.”
The agents followed him in single file to the roof.
Nick swung up into the chopper and adjusted his earpiece. “Intercept that red dot,” he instructed the pilot, pointing at the monitor on the control panel. The chopper clawed up into the pale blue sky, throwing their bodies precariously forward as it leaned in against the sun.
“Tango 1, this is Tango 5, over.”
Nick shook his head. How could a schoolgirl have given a trained CIA agent the slip? I’ll deal with him later.
“Tango 1 receiving,” he growled into the mouthpiece that linked him in radio comms with Jane and his ground crew.
“I have a visual on the minivan, sir. It’s west bound on Charles Street headed for Sunnyside. It doesn’t appear to have spotted me.” The relief was evident in Tango 5’s voice.
“Keep your distance till backup arrives.”
“Copy that, Tango 1.”
Nick leaned over the pilot’s shoulder, “How far till contact?”
The pilot skimmed the rooftops of Pretoria’s tall concrete giants then suddenly swerved left and headed east along Charles Street. He indicated four clicks with a gloved hand just as Tango 5 burst back onto the airwaves.
“The minivan entered the Metropolitan Car Park on the corner of Charles and Troy. No other units in sight. Advise Tango 1.”
The pilot pointed Nick to a white structure two kilometres ahead and dipped down between two buildings.
From the corner of his eye Nick caught a glimpse of the chopper’s dark shark-like reflection on blue mirrored glass. “Stay on him, Tango 5. But keep your distance.” He needed to know the layout of the car park. “Jane…”
“Already onto it, sir.”
There was a short silence. “The Metropolitan is an eight-storey car park with only one vehicle entrance-exit situated on Charles Street. There’s a pedestrian walk-out on the other side of the building directly opposite the vehicle exit.”
“Take me there,” Nick said, indicating to the pilot with a down spiralling finger he wanted to be dropped on the ground.
“Tango 5, do you have a clear visual?” Nick asked.
“That’s affirmative, Tango 1. The minivan’s on the second floor. It’s slowing down, sir.”
The leader of the mobile ground convoy, Mitch Barlow, was rushing from the Embassy to assist Tango 5. He radioed in. “This is Tango 2 approaching Charles and Troy with five units. ETA three minutes.”
“Have two of your units block the vehicle entranceway, Tango 2,” Nick instructed. “No traffic in or out. The rest of you kill your lights and sirens on entering the car park. We don’t want the jackers to panic and hurt our precious cargo.”
“Copy that, Tango 1.”
God knows we need some luck, Nick thought. He held on tightly as the pilot narrowly missed the car park’s rooftop to drop like a rock to the street below.
“Stay in the helicopter,” he ordered the three young agents.
The traffic screeched to a halt as the chopper hovered a few feet above them. Nick stepped out onto the landing skid and then jigged lithely onto the tarmac. Not bad for a six-foot-three forty-year old, soon to be part of the cleaning staff, he thought with a bitter smile. The chopper whooshed skyward as he strode onto the sidewalk to blend with the other pedestrians.
Tango 5 sounded anxious. “The minivan has parked up on level three. There’s no movement. It’s just sitting there. Advise Tango 1.”
“Back off and wait for Tango 2,” Nick rasped into the mouthpiece.
“Tango 5 copy.”
Mitch Barlow’s voice sounded over the radio. “Tango 2 copy that, ETA one minute…”
Tango 5 cut in. “We have a runner. I repeat, we have a runner. Black male, golliwog hairstyle, brown leather jacket. He’s headed for the pedestrian walk-out.”
“Tango 1 copy. What does the GPS say?”
“Goldilocks is still in the minivan, sir.”
“Stay there and wait for Tango 2 before proceeding. Leave this bastard to me.”
A loud crash ricocheted into the street as the suspect shouldered open the door on the ground floor. Ten more steps to the sidewalk and he would be free to disappear amongst the masses. Nobody was following him.
They’d be focussing on the minivan. He started to relax. Five more steps. As he slowed down to round the corner, a man with a dark suit and steel-grey eyes stepped out in front of him. A big fist connected with his forehead, sweeping the grin from his face and his feet out from under him.
“Air-support Alpha Zero, this is Tango 1…I need the immediate extraction of a parcel,” Nick said as he flipped over the suspect and slapped on the cuffs. The deafening chop of helicopter blades bounced off the surrounding buildings. Traffic screeched to a halt, opening up a landing pad for the chopper to touch down on.
The three young agents debussed and sprinted to where Nick was pinning the suspect down with a knee. “Get him to the safe house,” he instructed. One agent slipped a black hood over the suspect’s head whilst the other two each grabbed an arm. They dragged him up into the waiting helicopter and were airlifted out.
“Tango 1, this is Tango 2, over.”
“Tango 1, receiving.”
“There’s still no movement, sir. Do you want us to proceed?”
“That’s affirmative, Mitch. I’ll be there shortly.”
Mitch’s command over the PA system reached Nick on the stairwell as he skipped up to the third level. “Lay down your weapons and come out with your hands in the air.”
At the top of the stairs Nick peeked out from behind a concrete pillar. The lone minivan stood with the driver’s door open, pinned into a corner by black SUVs.
Tango 2 repeated the command. “This is your last opportunity to move peacefully or force will be used against you.”
Still no response.
“Move your men in, Tango 2. I’ll bring up the left flank,” Nick said. Half a dozen of Tango 2’s crew held back to provide cover. The other eight agents inched forward in a half-moon formation with guns levelled on the minivan.
Nick hurried into position. The rapid shallow breathing of the agent to his right trumpeted in his ears like a bull elephant. He felt the tension burn his shoulder muscles and his knuckles throbbed where it had connected with the suspect’s skull.
“Make dead certain before you discharge your weapons,” Nick whispered hoarsely. “For God’s sake, don’t harm Goldilocks.”
The formation swiftly closed in on the minivan. On the left flank Nick stuck his Glock .40 in through the open door with a double-handed grip. The cab was empty. “Front clear.”
Two agents stood ready at the back of the minivan. They waited for Mitch’s command. He was second in charge overall and Nick’s right-hand man.
Mitch nodded. The doors swung open. Eager pistols zigzagged the empty interior.
Nick was unsighted on the flank. The long silence told him something was wrong. A hollow sick feeling gripped his gut.
“All clear,” Mitch growled and stepped forward to retrieve the shiny collar hanging from a side panel. “Shit.”
Nick’s mouth went dry. A feeling of dread took hold of him as the gravity of his predicament became clear. That prick-of-the-skin sensation that left one with a sense of loss and failure.
She’s really gone. Don’t tell me this is happening again.
Images of a case gone wrong many years ago, flashed before him.
Mitch Barlow walked round to the front of the minivan where Nick stood imitating a statue. “It’s her necklace, sir. They deliberately left it behind.”
Inside job, was the first thing that went through Nick’s mind. A frown cut deep crevices into his forehead. “So they knew there was a tracking device in the necklace. That means they switched Goldilocks before Tango 5 got onto the minivan’s tail. The driver was a distraction, leading us astray whilst the others made a clean getaway with her.”
Mitch tried on a tight grin. “But they didn’t plan on us picking up their decoy.”
Nick holstered his pistol. “Contact the boys in the chopper, Mitch. They must turn his ear till he squeals. I want to know where Goldilocks is.”
Jane sounded concerned over the radio. “Sir, you need to get to the office. He wants to see you.”
Nick’s face turned as pale as his bristly blonde hair. “Tell him I’m on my way,” he grumbled and stared into Mitch’s dark eyes. “Process the van. Take it apart. I want to know everything about it. Even the names and addresses of the dogs that pissed on its tyres.”
Three years ago Nick handpicked Jane Delaney out of a field of twenty applicants for the position as head of administration. There was just something about her. Trustworthy.
He had gone with his gut and was glad he did. She was more loyal than a dog.
Jane was a stunning twenty-six-year-old blonde with the body of a wasp. But it was her smoky blue eyes that enticed him. He drew courage from those eyes.
She made him feel young and worthy and invincible again. And this was one of those times he needed courage. Nick dove into the blue pools for strength, instructing her to monitor all incoming phone calls. “We’re bound to get a ransom demand,” he said worriedly, and knocked on the mahogany door.
Nick took a deep breath and leaned in against the timber.
Harold J. Thomas hailed from one of America’s most influential political families. He was only a few years older than Nick, but already rumour had him running for the American Presidency in the next election. Harold’s short crop of dark hair had a sprinkle of silver on the temples, and his billboard tanned face was clean and open.
“Good morning, Mr Ambassador.”
“What’s going on, Nick?”
How do you tell a man of this calibre his only child is missing? Snatched away from under the nose of one of the most sophisticated agencies in the world. For one, you don’t beat around the bush.
“I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, sir. But Emily has been taken. It’s my opinion she’s been deliberately targeted…”
The ambassador stared blankly at Nick, as if he was speaking some foreign language. He showed no emotion.
“…to get to you. This stinks of a political ruse. Muslims, Middle East? I’m confident we’ll know the answers shortly. I have a suspect detained at a secure location.”
The ambassador slowly removed the gold-rimmed spectacles from his face and folded them onto the desktop before him. An expression of shock and horror creased his skin as he realised what had happened. His hands shook uncontrollably. “My little girl? Gone?” he moaned. “It can’t be.” Angry tears rolled shamelessly down his cheeks. He wiped his face and stood up glaring at Nick. When he spoke, his voice was cold and accusing. “Who’s to blame for this?”
“If I may be frank, sir? Emily faked an illness at school and then deliberately slipped away from her detail at the shopping mall. This isn’t the first time she’s tried to get away from him.”
“No,” the ambassador shouted, his eyes red with rage. Blobs of white spittle formed in the corners of his mouth. “No, you may not be frank. And no, you’re not going to blame a fuckin’ seventeen-year-old girl for slipping away from a trained CIA agent.”
Nick dropped his eyes to hide his shame. The ambassador was spot on, but life wasn’t always that clear cut. This was a well thought out scam. It was nobody’s fault other than the bastard behind it all.
“Who’s responsible for my daughter’s safety?”
There was no reasoning with a father in shock. Nick bit his tongue.
“You. That’s who, Goddammit. You’re responsible for this fuckin’ fiasco. You’d better pray nothing happens to her. If they so much as harm a hair on her head, I’ll nail your ass…”
The buzzer on the desk bleeped. It was the ambassador’s secretary on speakerphone. “There’s a man on line two. He says it’s urgent, sir.”
“I’m busy. Take a message,” Harold said, out of breath.
“He says it’s about Emily.”
“Wait.” Nick instructed. He spoke into his mouthpiece. “Jane, monitor and trace the call.”
“I’m already on it.”
Nick nodded for the ambassador to take the call. “Please be calm, sir. Keep it on speakerphone.”
The ambassador’s nose flared white, but he took a couple of deep breaths and pressed the button. “Thomas.”
The caller was using a voice enhancer to change his voice. He sounded hollow and metallic like a robot, or a tin man. “Listen carefully to my instructions, Mr Ambassador. If you ever want to see your daughter again you’ll do exactly as I say. No games. Do you understand?”
“I want two million dollars—US.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I haven’t got that kind of money…” The line went dead. “Hello, hello…fuck,” he cried out. “This is all your fault, Crowley,” he spat.
“Sir, you can stone me later. But for now, please, let’s concentrate on getting your daughter back.”
The ambassador rubbed his temples with the palms of his hands. Then he took out a packet of Marlboros from his desk drawer and flicked out a cigarette. Before he could light it, the buzzer bleeped again.
“It’s him, sir,” the secretary said.
“Put him through.”
The Tin Man wasn’t happy. “You’re playing games, Harold. In your safety deposit box—the one your wife doesn’t know about—you have two million dollars stashed away. Now, if I catch you playing any more games I’ll send your daughter’s head to you in a shoebox. Is that what you want?”
“No. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Let’s try one final time, shall we? The cash must be delivered by Nick Crowley. I’m sure he’s listening in on our conversation.”
“We’ve got one of your men,” Nick cut in. “Let’s do a straight swap.”
There was a short silence.
“Yes,” Nick answered.
“I don’t care if your captive dies. But do you want Emily’s blood on your hands?”
“You know I don’t.”
“Do exactly as I say and I’ll send Emily back unharmed.”
“There’s a public phone on the corner of Victoria and Paul Kruger Streets. Be there at 5pm on the dot. Come unarmed. No tracking devices or cell phones. If I see another agent or a chopper, the girl dies. Bring my money, Agent Crowley…and don’t be late.”
The phone line disconnected.
Nick spoke into the mouthpiece. “Jane, did you get a lock?”
“Yes,” she answered unenthusiastically. “My system indicates the call was made from Australia, then Germany and then Tokyo. He used a scrambler to deflect the origin of the call. He could be sitting in the neighbouring office for all we know.”
“Fuck,” Nick groaned in anguish.
“I want you to adhere exactly to his demands,” the ambassador said. “That is a direct order. No gadgets and no helicopter.”
“Sir, I would strongly advise against it. From personal experience I can say kidnappers rarely keep their end of the bargain. We’re putting Emily’s life in extreme danger if we don’t take precautionary measures.”
“No, I won’t have it. None of that James Bond palaver. This is my daughter’s life we’re talking about. Do you understand?”
Nick grunted in reply.
Petrol fumes. That’s all Emily could smell. She lay on her side in the trunk of a moving vehicle. She was still dazed from the punch to her face. Her jaw ached terribly. It was dark and her hands were tied behind her back. Ankles bound together. Tape plastered over her mouth. And the loud music inside the confined space blotting out all other sounds.
Drums. An African tribal beat.
The pain from coarse ropes cutting into her skin made her cry. That, and the hopelessness that overwhelmed her. Fear took over. Spasms. Her body erupted in a series of tremors.
Calm down, Emily Thomas. Think. Concentrate. Her mind was racing. Why wasn’t Sebastian there to meet me? Who’s the man with the brutal eyes? What does he want with me? Where are we going?
The tune ended. There was a brief pause before the next song. The sounds were unmistakeable.
A roaring motor.
A sniff close to her ear.
Hells bells. Someone’s inside the trunk with me.
“Mmmm,” she tried to yell. But the beat of boisterous music started up again.
Her heart pounded ferociously against her ribs. Terrified. She felt as if she’d been locked in a coffin with a corpse.
Get me out of here.
Emily was afraid of being touched by the other body.
Who is it?
She didn’t have to wait long to find out. The vehicle swerved recklessly. Left, right, and then braked sharply. The boot of the white sedan flipped open. She narrowed her eyes against the bright sunlight that flooded in.
Two black men lifted her roughly out of the trunk and bundled her into the back of a freight truck. They were somewhere on a deserted gravel road in the South African bush. She caught a glimpse of other girls seated against the sides of the truck’s interior. Their faces said it all. Terror.
One of the captors held Emily down as his partner cut through her binds. Then the two men walked back to the sedan and pulled an Asian girl from the trunk. They plonked her down beside Emily and cut through her shackles.
The heat sat thick in the back of the truck. Stifling. A hotbox. Emily’s pores opened up, shedding water.
“A peep from one of you bitches and I’ll stop all of you from breathing. Permanently,” Brutal Eyes snarled, wielding his gun. The girls ducked in behind each other, hiding their faces, cowering like scared mice.
The air went still. Then the truck’s roller door screeched shut with a clang, hurling them into darkness.
Emily’s hands and feet tingled as blood circulated back into them. Sharp pains stabbed her fingers. Her flesh felt leaden, as if it was dead. But she rubbed her wrists until the numbness disappeared.
The tape. She plucked it off her face and swallowed hard. Her throat felt like cork. As her eyes adapted to the darkness, Emily distinguished the figure of the Asian girl beside her. Petite. She too ripped off the tape from her lips. Then started crying softly.
Emily reached out and took the girl’s tiny hand in hers. “What is your name?” she asked consolingly, trying to keep the fear out of her own voice.
“Miki Toyama,” the girl squeaked.
“Hello, Miki Toyama. My name is Emily,” she whispered. They leaned back against the side of the truck, clinging to each other for comfort.
The fight in the Blue Lizard Bar took place at twelve minutes past noon. It started when the barman pushed Frank Dempsey’s third whiskey across the counter.
“I’ll put it on your tab,” he said and turned away to write down the amount on an already full page. In the dark corner at the far end of the bar, a scar-knuckled hand lifted the whiskey tumbler into the shadows and returned it empty three seconds later. “I’ll settle the bill at the end of the month,” Frank said hoarsely.
The barman wanted to yell out, ‘You said that last month.’ But decided against it. He knew what Frank was like when he got angry.
A bearded man the size of a full grown grizzly slurred from a few seats down. “I knew a fella once who drank whiskey. I didn’t like him. But at least he had the decency to pay upfront for his liquor.”
The only indication that Frank had heard him was a muted snort. And then he pointed to his tumbler for a refill. His day had started in the worst possible way.
For fifteen years he was stationed at South Africa’s elite investigating unit. But that was coming to an end. That very morning the Minister of Police stated in his email he was shutting down all Murder and Robbery offices. There were too many deaths in custody. He accused Murder and Robbery cops of being vigilantes, killing suspects left, right and centre. The Ministry referred to them as Death Squads brandishing their own kind of justice. It was unacceptable on all levels. They had to go.
Frank was depressed. His position as a senior detective captain would be amalgamated with the normal detective branch within a month. He dreaded the day.
From hunting cold-blooded killers for a living to investigating handbag snatching and puny burglaries. Then there’s this bearded clown squaring for trouble.
“Hey, fuck face, pay for your drink like everybody else or get out,” the grizzly spat.
Frank’s green eyes blitzed dangerously as he waited for the barman to finish pouring his whiskey. He flung it back, stood up and walked to where the big man was sitting. Strike first, was Frank’s motto.
His tall frame blurred as he stepped in, hitting straight out of the shoulder. All his weight was behind the punch when it connected. The loud crack, like that of a bullwhip, was from Frank’s battle-scarred fist breaking the bearded jaw in two places. As the unconscious man slumped out of his chair and crashed to the ground, Frank pointed calmly at the half-drunk beer on the counter.
“When he wakes up, give him a cold one and put it on my tab,” he said and walked out of the noisy bar to answer his cell phone.