Thursday, January 27, 2011

Murder @ Play - excerpt

Prelude - Pretoria, October 1994

Chapter 1


Anonymous letters are always a cliché. In South Africa, they can also be deadly.
This one would contain no explosives or wires. Just a plain envelope and a photocopy of words cut out from newspapers.
How many copies?
Five. One for every guy at the Election Day after-party.
Or perhaps only four?
Yes, that would be truly brilliant. Only four.




Chapter 2



"Every marriage needs a glaze of mystery," her husband had said last night. "Even ours could do with a secret or three."
Christine Chamberlain thought theirs could do without.
Whoever said jealousy was green, must have been colour-blind. Black. That was the colour. The pink and yellow sunrise was black, the sound of birds pecking at the apricot tree outside was black, and black was the smell of warm dusty soil. African black was the new, well, black.
Although, in the New South Africa, perhaps it was not politically correct to think that way. Perhaps she should stick to green. Green jealous thoughts, green sunrise, green birdsong, green smell of parched soil…yeah, right.
Christine's gaze shifted to Tom. They had fallen asleep together, as usual, entwined like lovers. This morning they woke up apart. As usual.
Tom lay on his side, his tanned back towards her, his sexy blond spikes limp from the heat. Yet Christine did not roll closer to curve her body around his. She clenched her jaw, remembering.
Last night's movie came back to haunt her. The music. The words.
Though I have all faith so that I could move mountains, if I have not love, I am nothing...
* * *
Though I speak with the tongues of angels, if I have not love, I have nothing, she mused on the way to the bathroom. She ran her bath on the cool side of tepid. It was going to be another scorching South African summer day.
Reclining in the water, Christine made a mental list of the weekend tasks.
One, vacuum the threadbare carpet of their start-up home. Most white South Africans employed a daily domestic cleaner, of course. Most white South Africans had a swimming pool too, and didn't have to rely on tepid baths in order to start the day cool and refreshed.
So, one, vacuuming.
Two, grocery shopping.
Three, finish reading that mathematics article….
Is that how much fun other married couples had every Saturday?
Four–
Tom's broad-shouldered form, clad in a summer bathrobe for decency's sake in case the neighbours developed x-ray vision, appeared in the bathroom door. His 'hi' was automatic, his kiss programmed into his subconscious routine.
"Yesterday's post, Dr Chamberlain."
He placed the envelopes on the edge of the tub and busied himself with the comb.
Yep, this was exactly how much fun married couples usually had on Saturday mornings. A naked wife and a semi-naked husband, in the bathroom together, gelling their hair and reading the previous day's post.
Tom looked at her reflection in the mirror. "Why the glum face this morning?"
Why, indeed. They had been out the previous night. After the movie they had stopped for a drink. Several drinks, in fact. The film had made an impact that needed drowning.
As soon as they'd sat down at the table, a Mexican waitress arrived. She had legs that defied all biological explanation, a wedge of lemon in her teeth and a bottle of tequila in each of the twin holsters. Before Christine could analyse how that made her feel, the waitress drew the tequila bottle in one smooth almost invisible gesture. Christine saw Tom's hand glide towards his hip in a matching movement.
"So what's with the instinct to draw? You don't even carry a gun," Christine had asked after they had gulped their shots.
That's when Tom had said the thing about every marriage needing a mystery. Then he ordered another tequila, this time with salt. The salt had arrived on the waitress's wrist.
At least it was not in her navel, thought Christine now, as she seethed in her cool bath.
No. That was all wrong. The secret of a successful marriage was to act as though you already had one. As simple as that.
"See? No more glum face," she replied.
She stood up in the bathtub and pressed her cheek to Tom's bare back, leaving a cool wet imprint. Tom turned to her, the comb forgotten.
Many satisfying minutes later she slid back into the tub and looked through the post. She liked her weekend ritual of sorting and reading the letters in the bath.
There was a thick envelope from the bank: pages and pages of their expenses recorded in depressing rows. A large, offensively decorated envelope promised a win of ten thousand Rand if acted upon promptly. A manila envelope with a plastic window….
"This one's addressed to you," Christine said. "You handle it."
"But it's meant for you. It's from your gynaecologist. The day I have a pap smear, I'll pay for it, but meanwhile, perhaps you could ask him to send his bills directly to you."
Christine shrugged. "The day a woman can buy a house in this country without her husband's permission, the day a woman can walk into a South African bar–"
"I know. And the day your married-woman income is taxed at the same low rate as mine, that's when you'll pay your doctors' bills yourself."
The repartee was academic, since they pooled their meagre resources. South Africa was still South Africa, despite the first free and fair election seven months earlier. The man was still the head of the household, with power over all matters financial, even if the wife was the main breadwinner.
"Too bloody right," murmured Christine.
The next piece of mail was addressed to Mrs. C. Wodehouse, instead of Dr. C. Chamberlain. Christine threw it into the bathroom dustbin unopened. It wasn't the omission of her academic title that annoyed her, it was Tom's surname stitched onto her initial. What next? Mrs. Tom Wodehouse? She had kept her maiden name in defiance of the chauvinist ways permeating the country's social conventions. Come to think of it, that defiance was one of the driving forces behind her getting a doctorate in the first place, and in a 'male' subject like maths, too.
The beige envelope with an intricate pattern felt thick and smooth under her fingers. The card inside matched the envelope, the words laser-printed, keeping up with the latest technology of the 1990s.

Dear Christine,

The fanfares announce that finally I'm free,
would you believe it, I got my degree,
Maths has relinquished another PhD,
so grab your significant other and hastily join me,
for a fun weekend at Bay Street five three.

P.S. Dress up or dress down, play a part, not the clown.

The invitation made the world seem a little less black. Basil was notorious for churning out absurd rhymes. 'A fat cat sat on a mat and with a pat of a bat had a chat with a rat,' began one of his typical epics.
Wordlessly, she handed the invitation to Tom.
Tom took his time spitting out the toothpaste. "Are we going?"
"What do you mean, 'are we going'?"
Tom sat on the edge of the bath.
"I just don't think it's such a good idea. Not after what happened at the Election Day party. It just wouldn't work anymore, Christine, all of us together."
The last thing Christine wanted to talk about was the Election Day party and the way their loyal group of friends had crumbled that night.
To avoid the memories, she put on a naughty grin. "You mean, the fact that we went through four rubbers that night?"
"We did? I don't recall playing bridge."
They laughed together, the way a couple should laugh. For a moment, a too brief a moment, all was well.
"You do know I still see Daniel occasionally? Despite the break-up of our group?" It came out more challenging than she had anticipated.
Tom scowled. "Yes, occasionally being the operative word here. But the whole weekend? That's what I call an overdose."
"Jealous, are we?" She smiled through her anger. Daniel had been a teenage romance, a friend more than a boyfriend.
"It's not that." Tom's tone was dismissive. "It's the whole idea of all of us together. Imagine the atmosphere."
"The atmosphere will hardly be antagonistic. Alice is not with Daniel anymore. Basil…Basil will cope. Why else would he be inviting us all?"
He shrugged an unconvinced shrug. "Sure."
Christine swallowed hard. Alice. Alice with her black wavy hair, twisting like leeches along her back, all the way to her–she hated to admit it–shapely buttocks. Alice with her smile that made men pull in their stomachs and pull out their guns to compare sizes. Alice the artist. Alice the free spirit. Alice the woman of mystery. How could a mousy mathematician compete?
Christine slid deeper into the bath, allowing the water to soak her hair even though she hadn't intended to wash it. Her thoughts melted into the cheap foam. Although a luxury, or even midrange, bath oil was not out of their financial league, her prudence usually opted for the eight Rand saving.
"Would you be a darling and bring your wife some chocolates?" she murmured.
Why is he allowed to mind about Daniel but I'm not allowed to mind about Alice?
"Chocolates in the bath? No way. That's decadence. Sampling life's riches does not spell happiness, darling. But I'll wash your back, if you like."
"I like." Christine soaped the sponge and pressed it into his hand. It was good, but not good enough.
The Romans didn't know chocolate, and so their decadence must have been seriously lacking.
"Tom, there's something for you in that pile of mail. And it's not from my gynie."
"From whom is it, then?"
"It doesn't say." The rough sponge felt delicious between her shoulder blades. "Perhaps it's from your secret lover."
"I don't have a secret lover. Open it."
Inside was a single photocopied page. The text was made up of fragments of newspaper headlines glued onto a sheet then photocopied. Christine stared at the words:

YOU AND ALICE.
THAT IS WHY
I WILL KILL YOU.

Frozen acid pooled in the pit of Christine's stomach. The world became blacker, much blacker than before.


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