Charlotte Otter, Balthasar’s Gift



Published with permission from the author
Originally published by Modjaji Books, 2014

Chapter 1


Sunlight glinted on the knife. It could have been a watch, or the carapace of a phone, or the shiny buckle of his belt, but it was a knife. She knew from the sly way he pulled its serrated smile out of his jeans pocket and held it against the woman’s ribs. His accomplice looted the woman’s moneybag, stuffed coins into a plastic bag. She bowed her head in penitence, as if the shame of being robbed in public was too much. Her legs wobbled. Only the knife’s grimace kept her upright.

In the early-morning rush, they could slip the knife into her torso and no one would be the wiser. Only when the crowds had melted away to their offices, shops and fast-food restaurants, donned their work faces, uniforms and name-tags, would her prone and bleeding body be found. Maggie watched from the traffic, trapped by the crush of suburban sedans and minibus taxis around her.

‘Stop them!’ she yelled, her voice muffled by the helmet. No one heard her.

The knife-bearer aimed a kick at the street-trader’s stall and her wares – an incongruous mix of apples, oranges and baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of the local football team – scattered to the ground. His friend shoved her and she staggered and fell, her head hitting the pavement with a sickening crack that Maggie heard despite her helmet and the revving of engines.

Her scream reverberated in Maggie’s ears.

The traffic light turned green and Maggie opened the throttle. She smelled petrol. She watched the thieves’ heads bobbing through the wave of people on the pavement. She watched the red t-shirt and the yellow thread their way through the crowd, eyes down, not running, but moving at a pace. They wove with intent, heading for the taxi rank that would take them out of town and out of danger. Maggie trailed them, the Yamaha’s engine grumbling.

They crossed Longmarket Street, Maggie’s route to work. She should turn right, go and park her bike and head into the office for her daily duties, but the sweet adrenaline of petrol fumes and the thieves’ swagger drove her after them. She revved again, and one turned his head. Wordless, he looked into her eyes. She narrowed them. He grabbed the other man’s arm, pulled it. They ran. Maggie gunned the engine.

The men dodged pedestrians, side-stepped and weaved. They threw glances over their shoulders at the roaring bike and flung a right at the corner. The traffic light was green and she followed. There were fewer people here, and the men ran faster. She was going to lose them. The cross-streets that led to the city’s lanes were approaching; they would duck into the maze and be lost forever.

She dropped a gear and the bike whined in response, but the gap between her and the men widened. They were getting away.

There was only one option. She turned the front wheel towards the pavement and heaved up the handlebars. It was quicker on the pavement. A man in a suit with a cell phone clamped at his ear yelped and pressed himself against a shop window. She was gaining on the men. She could see the muscles in their arms straining and hear their panting breath. A woman who had just parked her car screamed and flung the car door closed. In the rear-view mirror Maggie could see the blackened ‘O’ of her mouth.

The bike nosed the back of their legs. Their t-shirts were dark with sweat.

‘Stop!’ she shouted. They didn’t. She saw the opening to a parking lot. Both men turned and sprinted in. Maggie followed, but the men split. One ran back onto the street. The other – yellow t-shirt, the knife-bearer – climbed the wooden poles supporting the roof of the open-sided carport. He heaved himself onto the roof.

Maggie turned off the engine, hoiked the bike onto its stand, and followed him.

Hands greasy with creosote, she struggled to get purchase on the roof, but she angled one knee over the drain. She hooked her fingers under the tin roof tiles, already baking in the morning heat, and pulled herself up. The roof shook with the man’s tread as he ran down the length of the carport. Maggie ran after him, the thump of blood in her ears.

He reached the end of the port and swung himself over a wall. She heard a gasp of breath as he landed. She looked down at the two-metre drop and the concrete floor below. The man pulled himself to his feet, but he was hobbling. He had injured himself.

She knelt on the wall, turned herself around, held on by her hands and slid down, her stomach scraping against the rough bricks. She felt the jolt in her legs as she landed, swung around and saw the man round the corner. He was in her grasp.

She sprinted across the empty lot and turned the corner after him.

The knife grinned at her.

‘Leave me alone,’ the man panted, his fingers gripping the knife’s handle. ‘I don’t have the money.’

Maggie felt a cold bead of sweat trail between her shoulder blades. She stretched her hands out towards him. ‘Give me the knife.’

With her other hand, she felt in her jeans pocket. She had Mathonsi on speed-dial.

The pain slashed across her open palm, a line of blood gathered across the word tattooed on her palm. The four letters inked there were now blurred. She looked up and saw his teeth before he turned to run. A red mist gathered at her temples, her vision grew hazy with outrage. He wasn’t getting away.

Sprinting behind him, she grabbed his arms and tackled him, ignoring the searing pain in her hand. He slid to the floor, his injured ankle giving way under her weight. Maggie could feel the steel of muscle in his arms as they wrestled. His legs flailed against hers. She pulled back her foot and aimed a kick at his ankle. He screamed. As he clutched his foot, she reached around and pulled the knife out of his jeans pocket. Pointing the man’s knife at him, she pulled herself to a standing position, about to press Mathonsi’s number on her cell phone.

Instead her phone rang. It was the boss.

‘This isn’t a good moment,’ she told him. At her feet, the thief wriggled to a sitting position. Maggie thrust the knife at his chin and he winced. His eyes held the blank patina of desperation. He started inching away from her. She trod on his outstretched hand – he was not getting away. Her steel-capped Docs would make sure of that.

‘It never is,’ said Zacharius Patel. ‘There’s been a shooting. Possible murder. Get yourself to HIV House this minute. Ed’s already on his way.’

‘OK,’ she said. A murder was bigger news than a knife-wielding thief. ‘Just got something to tie up quickly.’

‘Don’t mess around, Cloete,’ Patel said. ‘Try and get there before the cops if you can. Once they have the scene sealed, the story’s comatose.’

She grimaced and killed the call. She didn’t need Zacharius Patel to tell her how to do her job.

Maggie grabbed the man’s skinny wrist with her right hand, pain forgotten, and with her left ripped one of the laces out of her Docs. She hauled him to his feet, pushed him against a lamp-post and tied his hands behind his back and to the post. Then she called Mathonsi.

‘I’ve left you a present,’ she told the policewoman. ‘On Carbineer Street. Round the corner from Prince Alfred Parking.’

In the lot she rocked her bike off its stand and pulled on her helmet. There was no time to wash or clean her bleeding hand. She had to get to HIV House and fast.

It was an eight-block drive through the rush-hour traffic. As she signaled to turn onto the road, a minibus taxi with windows open, kwaito blaring and passengers crammed in five to a seat, hooted and swung in front her. She swore under her breath and the driver flashed her a two-fingered peace sign. The taxis ruled the road and anyone who thought differently risked a side-swipe. She couldn’t afford that right now. Work was waiting.

Then the traffic light changed and pedestrians swarmed across the road in herds. She swore again. When her passage was free of human obstacles, she gunned it, blurring the buildings and shops on either side of her.

Turning right, she saw the crowd clustered at the AIDS Mission, known to the locals as HIV House. A scowling policeman guarded the gate and the barbed wire fence.

She was too late. Patel was going to be furious. Thief-chasing was not officially on her job description.



Charlotte Otter is a South African living in Germany. She has worked as a writer since leaving university. Her first novel, Balthasar’s Gift, was published in Germany in 2013 as as Balthasars Vermaechtnis, by Argument Verlag mit Ariadne, a Hamburg publisher that focuses on crime fiction by women. It is also available as an e-book, published by Culturbooks. The English version was published in June 2014 by South Africa’s Modjaji Books. Charlotte’s new novel, Karkloof Blue, was published by Ariane in September 2015 and has just been released in South Africa by Modjaji Books.

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