BETTER THE DEVIL CHAPTER 1
FEW THINGS have made me happier than leaving Johannesburg. The arrival of Lindi. The birth of Toby. Momentous events. Returning was momentous too.
I stood alone among the strangers at Dad’s after tears party. The post burial party was paused for speeches. Waiters stood with platters of meat pies and skewered prawns. Tumblers drained of Scotch remained empty. The praise singers were quiet. Even the moon had come to the party, hanging full and ripe like rotten cheese.
Lindi’s house was suspended from the Westcliff ridge, the glass cube reflecting red rock and spiked succulents. Melvin stood in a halo of light. His voice was hypnotic. ‘Thomas was a man of few words and great intellect. Eva was our shining light during the struggle. They are our royalty. We’re here to celebrate their lives and to offer our respects.’
The comment washed over me. Everything was always about my mother, even dad’s funeral. I watched Melvin control his audience, confident in his power. ‘Friendship is a fragile thing. There is no blood to bind. But our friendship survived. From young men fighting for a vision to old men sharing it. I loved the man. Thomas was as close to a brother as I ever came, the more special as I chose him myself.’
I recognized faces in the crowd. The ex-Chief of Police. He’d bounced me on his knee as a child. Long before he’d become Head of Interpol. Long before the disgrace. He was out of jail on compassionate grounds, ill health. Not that you’d think so given his cigar and scotch. I thought how little these people had impacted my life. When my mother died, they’d disappeared. The parties stopped. No guests and music, no police roughing us up. Freedom fighters then, free loaders now.
‘And then of course there is our beautiful, brave Eva. Like all great love stories, it’s impossible to think of one without the other. They were a wonderful partnership, both in marriage and in their shared commitment to our struggle. He never stopped hunting for those responsible for her death.’
I thought of my last conversation with dad. He’d called from an unknown number. He was pumped on adrenalin. He said that if anything happened to him the police wouldn’t help. He asked me to finish what he’d started. Over and over. Insistent. Of course I promised. What else could I do from so far away? He told me about the box then said: ‘Don’t tell anyone, not even Lindi.’ Raise us as sisters then divide us at the end. It made no sense.
‘Thomas had an exceptional mind. He thought in numbers and found patterns in everything. His memory was like an encyclopedia. He looked at chaos and saw trends. His financial approach was conservative but he was not a conservative man. He was a man of great contradiction, so private that even his brother didn’t know him.’
I was jostled sideways, someone laughed. I covered my eyes. I felt the sobs gather, didn’t want them. I gulped in air and thought of Toby. Skinny legs with falling down socks. Soft breath and damp curls as he slept. The Lego world he was building. My special boy safe over the ocean with his godfather. Calm returned. The sob dissipated.
I stared into the distance. The lights of Johannesburg stretched to the horizon like precious jewels. Manhattan lights just horizontal. I felt his presence behind me and turned. Our eyes connected. My heart pounded with regret and remorse. Defiance too. I glanced away.
‘I’m sorry about your dad,’ Eddie said. ‘Everything else too.’
I wanted to throw myself into his arms. To feel him against me. For everything to be how it was at the beginning. Before that day and all that followed.
‘Could we talk before you go?’ he asked.
I shook my head. It took every ounce of determination but I did it. I turned away and scanned the crowd for my sister. Across the garden, Lindi waved and threaded through the guests towards me. She was all chiseled cheekbones and soft lips. When she reached me, I collapsed into her arms. I didn’t move for the longest time.
‘I remember his reaction to fatherhood. For a man who conserved words, they poured from him like honey. His world overflowed with love for Audrey. When Lindi was adopted, she was included in this love.’
Lindi took my hand and led me up some rock steps to a stretch of terraced garden.
‘Where’s Chloe?’ I asked. Lindi’s three year old was my other joy.
‘Fast asleep,’ Lindi said. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t bring Toby.’
‘I’m scared,’ I said.
‘We all are.’ Lindi turned to face me. I saw my sister as she’d been when she’d arrived with Melvin. A vulnerable seven years old, a bit of brave in her set jaw. An older woman approached. Her security remained at the base of the stairs. ‘You look like your mother,’ she said addressing both of us. It was a strange way to address non-biological sisters.
She said to me, ‘I see the same fire in your eyes. You’ll do great things.’
I nodded, smiled. It’s difficult to live up to an icon.
‘Eva helped me,’ she said. ‘My debt to her is now yours. I pass on my sympathies.’
She pressed her business card into my palm then slipped away. Lindi followed her. They disappeared like crocodiles into water. Melvin moved from the spotlight. Guests clapped. The praise singers moved towards the microphone. I contemplated my hometown. Jozi. Joburg. eGoli. The New York of Africa. The gold rush town that had never grown up. A gangster’s paradise dressed up as the economic powerhouse of Southern Africa. The city was all about money and power. Whichever came first and by whatever means. If you can make it here. The song applied to Johannesburg as well.
I smelt cedar and spice of cigar smoke. I turned and there he was. Struggle hero turned billionaire. Richest man in Africa but still just Melvin. Short and round, eye wrinkles like sunbursts from his perpetual smile. I hugged him. It felt good. Melvin was genuine. He wasn’t here to network.
‘I wish I could give this story another ending,’ Melvin said.
‘They didn’t even take his wallet.’ My voice cracked.
‘His murder is a tragedy.’
‘They made him kneel,’ I said, pulling away. ‘It was an execution.’
Melvin was quiet. When he started speaking, his voice was low and soft. ‘We live in the crime capital of the world,’ he said. ‘Women are raped, children are abused, rhinos are poached, and cars are hijacked. If we’re lucky, we’re unscathed. Most people aren’t lucky.’
‘So random violence?’
‘This whole thing is terrible.’ He placed his hand on my arm. ‘I’m sure your father told you everything. Did he tell you about the box?’
I stared at Melvin, brain racing. Melvin knew. That meant Dad trusted him. Of course he did. They were best friends. I nodded my head.
‘Do you know where it is?’ Melvin asked.
‘I don’t think its an actual box,’ I said. ‘It’s more cryptic.’
‘I think it’s physical and contains proof.’
‘A mathematical proof isn’t physical.’
‘Thomas was killed because he knew something,’ Melvin said. ‘The box will help us understand why he was killed. Maybe even who did it.’
‘Have you looked for it?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know his hiding places,’ Melvin said.
And in that instant, it
came to me. I knew the game. I knew where the box was. I’d seen it.
I WATCHED THE red beads of Melvin’s taillights drive away then yanked the curtains closed. Safe. Nobody watching. Just my old dog Rika, her eyes tracking me from her cushion beside the fireplace. I walked across the floor and scratched behind her ears. She’d been well cared for since dad died. The German Shepherd pushed her nose into me like she used to. No admonitions; no sulking. What sort of girl flees and ditches her dog with her dad?
His desk was a study of right angles: telephone two inches from the back right corner; unread equity analyst reports two inches from the left; computer monitor dead center. The box was positioned at a perfect oblique. Calculated. Clever. Intentional. I pulled the lacquered box towards me: big enough for folded documents; small enough to conceal beneath a jacket. A modern combination lock was threaded through the brass clasp. Time to crack the code. All I needed was four numbers.
I entered dad’s birthday. The lock remained closed. I tried his birth year. Nothing. I entered my own birthday, then birth year, then Lindi’s. Nothing. My mother’s. Nothing. Dad wouldn’t have made it that easy.
I shoved my chair back and glanced around the study. The bookshelf beside dad’s desk contained five shelves of identical lever arch folders. Choosing one at random, I discovered an offshore equity portfolio of several hundred million dollars. Big money. No client name just a number. The combination wouldn’t be here. He’d left the box for me.
As I pushed the folder back into the bookshelf, I noticed a single letter written in pencil on the folder label. I glanced across the folder spines. On each label, one or more letters had been written: K, Q, B, N, R, P. It was obvious if you’d lived the game like we had. It was all about the letter N. In algebraic notation, the modern way of recording chess games, the letter N stood for the knight. K was reserved for the king. Each letter represented a chess piece: King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, Pawn.
I walked to the chess table beside the fireplace. A game was paused in progress. Dad never attended school concerts or swimming galas like the other parents. We played chess. Silently. Each game a war waged, sometimes over weeks. Like now, the chess pieces would remain on the board as they were, the game suspended while the next move was contemplated.
Logic. Clarity. Memory. Patterns. The same attributes required for success in life, dad always said. Lindi considered chess a waste of time. She preferred romance novels. Chess was our domain.
I wondered who’d been the white opponent to dad’s black. Leaning forward, I examined the chessboard and laughed. I knew the next move, how the white queen would skid across and checkmate the black king. It had been my first victory over him. Ten years old and his first approval.
Qg4 Qg8. That would have
been my move, Queen moving from g4 to g8. Reading chess strategy was like
reading a musical score, you needed to understand the language. Like decoding a
dead man’s clues. It was almost too easy. Except that, if I was correct, I was
the only one would’ve known the next move. It was clever. It was right. This
was dad. I strode back to the box, spun the dials and pulled.
THE BOX WAS EMPTIER than I’d anticipated. I removed everything and laid it on the desk. First was a photograph from my parents’ wedding. Three men in tuxedos and the bride. The men had arms across shoulders, cigars clenched between teeth. Dad was smiling, not the thin-lipped excuse for a smile that I remembered from my youth, but full and adoring. Melvin was laughing, his head thrown back and his arm looped around my mother. They looked comfortable together, old friends in a fledgling struggle. On the periphery, Fat Matt glared at the bride. I wondered if he was out of jail yet.
I peered at my mother. High cheekbones chiseled, skin smooth. She shone with happiness, her smile glorious and effervescent. Her eighties dress had silver sequins embroidered across one shoulder like the rays of an asymmetrical sun. She was so many people’s sun, the epicenter of uncountable planets. Mine too when I was young.
Next was a photocopy of a newspaper article dated November 1997, reporting on the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. My mother’s death had been one of the most publicized cases for which resolution had never been achieved. The article stated that the TRC had established three facts about Eva’s death. Firstly, the double agent who’d turned her over to the security police was codenamed Mr X and his true identity was unknown. Secondly, she’d been tortured. Thirdly, her death was not suicide. Nothing new.
The article included the famous quote about how Eva had struggled as they pushed her from the window. At the time, I’d thought she’d been thinking of me, her five year old, rather than the country. It had made all the difference to me.
Next was a sales invoice for a case of local vintage port produced in my birth year. Collecting sweet wines were dad’s indulgence, with vintage cars and art. All appreciating assets.
Just three pieces of paper. Nothing I didn’t already know. I rechecked inside the box. In the corner was an old pewter key. I picked it up, holding the flat shaft between my fingers. It was thin and insubstantial. The cuts were minimal, too simple for a modern lock.
I placed it on the desk. I closed the box and threaded the lock through the clasp. I positioned it at the same perfect oblique as I’d found it then turned my attention to its contents. Photo. Newspaper clipping. Port invoice. Key.
No slam dunk. No silver bullet. I photographed everything with my phone then slid the key onto the silver chain around my neck. The documents needed a smart hiding place but my brain was shutting down. With my toe, I flipped up the corner of the carpet. Beneath was a non-slip underlay. I placed the papers between the two. Not great but fine for now.
It was time to sleep.
My eyes snapped open. Dad disappeared, the blood around his corpse vanished. A movie in rewind: pool of blood; no pool of blood. Dead; alive. I was slick with sweat, twisted into bedsheets. Where was I?
I listened for the patter of Toby’s feet in the half dark. The grating call of the sacred ibis pinned me in Johannesburg. My eyes adjusted to the semi dark. The old house creaked around me, grumbling as the sun warmed its cold joints.
I threw my duvet aside and almost fell over Rika. I rough-loved the dog then headed downstairs. I took the stairs two at a time, Rika at my knee. I’d take Rika when I left, couldn’t leave her twice. Toby would be overjoyed.
I collected the wine cellar key from its place. Soft morning light pressed into the lounge. The room had an ascetic feeling. Everything was white apart from the art.
There was a new Robert Hodgins’ oil, a man in a suit with a smoking gun. I glanced around the walls. A Francis Bacon self portrait hung beside a Kentridge landscape of Johannesburg. A nude oil by Marlene Dumas hung above some Miro stars and swirls. The unmistakable drips and splatters of Jackson Pollock. Not an inch of empty wall space. This was serious art, international and museum grade. When had this happened?
I strode onto the covered veranda. Wisps of cloud adorned the perfect blue skies. Another beautiful day in Africa. Descending the stone steps onto the lawn, I walked around the side of the house. The dew was cold between my toes. Of our childhood lair, only the original door remained. Paint peeling, Dad called the door his red herring. Nobody would think anything of value was stored there. Not that he’d left anything up to chance. He’d linked motion-sensor beams and cameras to the security system. I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm the night before. Too many years in America.
I unlocked the door, lifting as I shoved it open. Always easier to get in than out. We’d learned that as kids. An image flashed: Lindi with her hands over her ears and screaming as I yanked on the door from the inside. How old were we, eight maybe? The cellar had been smaller then, a garden storeroom. I remembered thinking that if we didn’t get out, only our skeletons would be found.
I’d gotten us out in the end. Lindi’s screams had turned to sobs then silence as she’d watch me. She’d started her histrionics again when the door was opened, rushing into the sunlight and warm comforting arms of some unremembered nanny. Always attention seeking; always the center of attention. That was my sister. But I wouldn’t have gone in there alone. Lindi taught me brave. I had lots to thank her for. Wouldn’t have got that Pulitzer without the brave.
I flicked on the light. The red rock of the house’s foundations was exposed, the floor a high gloss screed. Stone arches separated the three subterranean rooms. Thousands of wine bottles were stored on minimalist steel racks that stretched from floor to ceiling. Each room contained a different colour grape (red, white, other), each wall something else (region, varietal, blend). His system was precise and logical. He could find any wine without even referring to the handwritten labels on each rack.
A table filled the central room. I picked up dad’s tasting book and flipped to the most recent entries. Château d’Yquem 1983 with Melvin. A magnum of Vintage Veuve, noted as bone dry and biscuity, to celebrate Lindi’s birthday.
I entered the side room. My port was in its place, Lindi’s on the shelf below. I removed the wooden case, placed it on the table and opened the lid. Five bottles, each wrapped in white tissue paper. But where was my port? These bottles were the wrong shape. I laughed, a great rush of delight catching me unawares. It was as though dad was right here, watching with amused eyes.
I unwrapped the nearest bottle, revealing a white burgundy. Corton-Charlemagne. Grand Cru. Maybe the best French chardonnay, and dad’s favourite. I unwrapped the remaining bottles and examined their labels. They were all Grand Cru, all white burgundies. It was simple: this was getting complicated. Complicated like dad. Complicated like Burgundy.
‘Close your eyes, take a sip and tell me what you’re drinking’, Dad would say. ‘Don’t think, just feel. Match taste and memory. It’s all learnt, you just need to remember. Like chess.’
Easy for dad with his memory. Burgundy as a wine region was for the cerebral, a paradox of the simple and the complex. Hundreds of appellations; thousands of producers and names so similar they gave me a headache. Chapelle-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin. The grapes were easier: white was chardonnay; red pinot noir.
I jumped as the extractor fan whirred to life. The empty space on the rack was like a kid with a missing tooth. I examined the five wines on the table. They were all from Côte de Beaune, an appellation famous for its whites. It produced reds too, if my memory served me right. I opened my phone browser, typed Corton-Charlemagne and got generics: expensive, unusual, delicious. The answers wouldn’t be on the internet.
Simple if you don’t think about it.
I needed to solve the riddle to play dad’s game. Dad and his games. Chess. Blind tastings. Was his whole life a game? Was life a game? Is that how I’d got it wrong, taken it all too seriously? No. Dad was serious. The game wasn’t in the flippancy, it was in the challenge. Winning by outsmarting. The slight of hand. The hidden in the obvious. The obvious not hidden, too easy to be the answer.
Why wine. Years and years of research, his brain like an encyclopedia. Books and articles, critics’ opinions and his own tasting notes. The port invoice. The procurement. Dad had a spreadsheet but that would be upstairs. The answer would be here. And it had something to do with white Burgundy. Port pushed out. The cuckoo’s egg laid in another’s nest.
Where was my port? If everything had its place, where should the Burgundy be in the cellar? I strode to the tasting book and flicked pages. Opposites. He was playing with opposites. I wasn’t looking for white burgundy, I was looking for red. I glanced up. Dad’s wall of red Burgundies was impressive. Three hundred bottles. More? Too many to look through. Running my finger down the page, I hunted for something. The familiar within the unfamiliar. I found tasting notes on three of the bottles on the table, the deliciousness of the chardonnay. And then I found it: Corton-Charlemagne. Vintage: 1998. Remaining bottles: 4. Occasion: random Tuesday, Melvin. Varietal: pinot noir. It was an equal and opposite. The only one of the five bottles on the table that had a corresponding red.
I skidded across the cellar, hunting for those four bottles. Eyes skipped across labels. Here. It was here. I just knew it. And then there it was. In front of me. In black and white. In dad’s handwriting. 1998 Corton-Charlemagne. High up. Steel rack against a wall of painted planks. I pushed the card from its frame and flipped it over. On the back of the card were a sequence of numbers. GPS coordinates. Bingo.