Charlotte Otter, Balthasar’s Gift II

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[CONTINUED FROM YESTERDAY]

She ran towards the silent crowd, scouring it for Ed, and found his blonde head and broad shoulders with a practiced eye.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Got here as quick as I could.’

‘Not quick enough,’ the photographer replied, camera pressed to his face. Ed had a way with images, not with words.

She could hear keening from inside the building. Someone lay on the stoep, covered in blood. The medics were already there, trying to revive the person, and it did not look as if they were succeeding.

Notebook in hand, Maggie turned to the middle-aged man next to her. He was short and rotund and had both hands over his mouth, eyes wide.

‘I’m from the Gazette. Did you see what happened?’

‘Hau, Miss,’ he said. ‘I heard the shots from my shop. I ran here and then I saw him, just lying there.’

‘Alone?’

‘No, the boss of HIV House –’

‘Lindiwe Dlamini,’ she said. The head of the AIDS Mission was well-known for her opinions on HIV/AIDS. She told anyone who would listen that the government was not doing enough to stop the epidemic.

‘Yes, she was holding him in her arms and crying. The blood from his chest was pouring out everywhere, onto her clothes. Then the police came and took her inside.’

‘Do you know who he is?’

‘He comes into the shop for cooldrinks. His name is Balthasar Meiring.’

Maggie remembered the whispery voice. She’d been on deadline, fingers stabbing the keyboard, as she answered the phone, grasping it between head and shoulders.

‘Ms Cloete?’ He had an Afrikaans accent with an overlay of English, as if he’d been to an English-speaking school or university. It was similar to her own, except that she’d not had the privilege of university. The Gazette had provided her tertiary education; a Bachelor’s degree in murder, rape and robbery, day after relentless day.

‘Cloete.’

‘Balthasar Meiring here, from the AIDS Mission. We’ve got a case coming up in the High Court next week that you need to attend.’

‘Uh-huh.’ She stopped typing to flick through her notes. There was the quote she wanted. She fired it into the story with a battery of flying fingers.

‘Some local families who’ve lost relatives to AIDS have a class action suit against a doctor who sold them a fake cure. We’re talking major damages.’

She stopped typing and looked out of the window at the tops of the oak trees in the Old Supreme Court gardens. ‘Sounds like a story we’d cover. Listen, I’ll pass it on to Aslan Chetty, my colleague on the health beat. What did you say your name was again?’

‘Meiring,’ he’d replied. ‘Balthasar Meiring.’ He paused, then persisted, ‘But Ms Cloete, you cover crime and courts. I know your work. I want you on it.’

‘Appreciate the compliment, but I can’t muscle in on my colleague’s beat.’

‘Ms Cloete,’ the voice grew more urgent. ‘These are people who have been dumped on by life. They need someone on their story who actually cares about their fate. Someone with humanity. Not just the kind of journalist that chases headlines. I’ve been away a long time, but I was here in 1989. I know the lengths you go to.’

‘I’ll see what I can do.’ She was used to getting calls from nutters who believed their story was headline news and she was practised at easing them off the phone. Also she didn’t want to think about 1989. One taste of a jail cell had been enough for her. ‘I promise you, we’re onto it.’

‘You’re the one, Ms Cloete,’ the man whispered. She ended the call and finished her story under deadline. On her way out, she stopped at Aslan’s desk and told him about the caller. He shook his head. ‘I’ll do my best Maggie, but you know what it’s like.’ She did know. Thanks to the AIDS epidemic and the government’s apparent lack of interest in it, health was the busiest beat on the paper. After crime, that was.

Balthasar Meiring had wanted her on a story, and now he was dead, shot in broad daylight in front of the AIDS Mission. Damn. She should have listened to him when he called, gone to the court case. If she had, would he still be alive? Did someone have to die nowadays to get her attention?

She made her way to the policeman and showed him her Press card. ‘Do you know what happened here?’

Few police personnel on a crime scene offered information, but sometimes she chanced on one who’d talk. She always asked, just in case, but this one barely glanced at her.

‘Just a robbery gone wrong,’ he told her. ‘Phone police liaison for confirmation.’

That was the answer she’d expected. Thandi Mathonsi, the police liaison, briefed Maggie daily on crime stories big and small and replied to her myriad questions. Tall and clever, she had an attitude as sharp as her designer spectacles and knew how to keep a journalist’s appetite for more satiated without stepping outside her political boundaries.

‘Stop with the photos.’ Reacting to some signal from within, the grumpy cop put his hand across Ed’s line of vision.

Maggie shot a look at Ed, hoping he’d got something. He grimaced and let the camera fall against his chest.

The medics gave up. Death had won. They covered the body in a black sheet. The police would take over from here.

‘Clear off now,’ the charmer at the gate told the crowd. ‘Party’s over.’

People dispersed, shaking their heads. No one liked to watch a person die. Maggie grabbed the rotund guy before he could disappear and they retreated across the road to the shade of a jacaranda tree. ‘I’m going to be writing this up for tomorrow’s Gazette,’ she told him. ‘Can I quote you?’

‘That’s fine.’ He spelled out his name and she repeated it to him, to be sure.

‘Anything you want to say about Meiring?’

‘Friendly guy, always had time to talk. He spoke really good Zulu.’ He fanned himself with a copy of the Gazette, which he’d pulled out of his back pocket.

‘Has there ever been anything like this here before?’

‘No shootings.’ He sucked his teeth. ‘Not since the hijacking in December. Some robberies and lots of people in and out, but this is the first big trouble in a long time.’

‘Did anyone you know see anything? The robber, for instance?’

‘Nope.’

A second ambulance arrived, and a woman in a blue jacket with fluorescent stripes on the arms climbed out and made her way into the house. She stepped over the blood coagulating on the stoep stairs.

Maggie and Ed waited in the shade as the police removed the body. People said journalists drank because of the stress but Maggie thought it was boredom. She spent her life waiting: waiting for people to stop crying, waiting for them to come out of their homes so that she could door-step them, waiting for people to phone her back, waiting for court cases to stop being postponed, waiting for the police to formulate a statement so that she could get a story out, waiting for the news editor to check her story so that she could submit it to the subs and bloody well go home. No wonder they drank.

Her hand was starting to ache. The blood had dried in a ragged line across her palm.

Now, the ambulance assistant came out, holding a woman by the shoulders. Lindiwe Dlamini had folded in on herself, collapsed against the young assistant’s body. Her white shirt was blotted red and her navy skirt was streaked with dark marks. Maggie crossed the road.

‘Mrs Dlamini?’

She looked up, eyes thickened with grief. There were smudges on her cheek. ‘I’m Maggie Cloete, from the Gazette. Can you tell me what happened?’

The ambulance woman scowled, but Lindiwe Dlamini stopped. Maggie held her breath for information, anything that would give her story an angle.

‘We’ll release a statement in due course,’ Dlamini said. She pulled a giant black handbag close to her body.

‘Was it Balthasar Meiring?’

The woman stood, poised to get into the ambulance, the assistant’s blue-coated arm still guarding her shoulders. Maggie caught the faint nod before Lindiwe Dlamini climbed in. The vehicle drove off, leaving two cops conferring on the stoep, mynah birds squalling in the jacarandas, and a pool of thickened blood. Apart from his name, she still didn’t have anything – no witnesses, no statement from Lindiwe Dlamini, probably no decent pics thanks to the shitty cop.

All she had was an aching hand and a nagging feeling in her gut that she should not have ignored Balthasar Meiring.


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