The dog next door wouldn’t stop yapping. It had a habit of waking the whole neighbourhood in the middle of the night. Martha was surprised nobody had poisoned the bloody thing yet. Even she’d considered it, especially at two in the morning. The digital clock’s display told her it was quarter past two – right on time. Keira, her German Shepherd who looked more like a jackal, lay at the bottom of the bed. The dog raised her head and barked – a strange, deep guttural noise. Keira had never made that kind of sound before. The dog jumped off the bed and ran down the passage towards the back door.
The hair on Martha’s arm prickled and her heart rate jumped. Every time Keira barked at night she felt her stomach tighten and her bladder loosen. She couldn’t help but wonder when it would be her turn to be ravaged by crime. It wasn’t a case of if, but when. She’d gotten used to being nervous. Being nervous was a common enough affliction in this day and age. Apparently most South Africans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Everyone she knew lived in fear, but this was the first time she’d really felt it in every part of her being and she wondered if she wasn’t perhaps being a little irrational.
Martin, her son, had given her a 9mm pistol which she kept in her underwear draw. The safe in her cupboard was too much of a schlep to open. She opened the draw and picked up the pistol, which felt strange and heavy in her hands. She switched off the alarm and followed Keira to the back door. The dog scratched at the base of the door, her hackles up.
“What the devil’s going on?” Philipa asked. Philipa had moved in when their respective husbands both died of cancer, a case of safety in numbers. “And what are you doing with that thing?” Philipa gestured at the pistol.
“For one thing, I’m trying not to shoot myself in the foot, so don’t sneak up on me like that.” Martha took a deep breath and tried to calm her palpitating heart.
The two women stood close together. The dog bolted when the door and security gate opened. It was then that they heard the voices and Keira’s growls.
“Shouldn’t we call the police or the security company?” Philipa whispered, holding onto Martha’s nightgown.
“It’ll take the security company about half an hour to get here, and we’ll be lucky if the cops even answer their phone. When I called the police about that prowler last month they only showed up the next morning. We’re on our own, Phil.”
“Well … I’ve got the panic button just in case.” Philipa clung to the panic button dangling around her neck on a thick silver chain as if it was a magic amulet that would protect them from evil.
They crept along the wall as they made their way towards the back patio and the voices. Keira yelped then fell silent. Dread slithered around Martha’s stomach and took a firm grasp. She tightened her grip on the pistol. Martin had taken her to the shooting range a few times. She’d managed to pull the trigger with difficulty, but she was fairly certain she’d be able to hit something if push came to shove. Or so she tried to convince herself. What greeted them when they came around the corner would have been comical if it hadn’t been for the knowledge that the men were there to do them harm and the bleeding dog lying on her side, panting in abject terror.
Two men in balaclavas, one caught in the barbed wire and the other, standing on the patio table trying to untangle him, talked loudly to each other, completely unconcerned that they could be heard. A panga, covered in what Martha assumed was Keira’s blood, was propped up against the back wall. Keira gave a pitiful moan when she saw Martha and Philipa. Martha raised her pistol and aimed it at the man standing with his back to them. She was tempted to shoot him just for what he’d done to her dog.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Martha screamed. Her hands shook. Philipa clung to her nightgown and stood behind her, using her as a shield.
“Hey, lady, put that down,” the man standing on the table said, as he turned and edged towards the panga.
“Don’t move,” Martha said. “I will shoot.”
“We’ve called the police,” Philipa interjected over Martha’s shoulder.
The man’s laughter was filled with contempt.
“The cops, they can’t help you, mammie. Put it down before you hurt yourself,” he said as he picked up the panga and jumped off the table. He then shouted at his companion in a language Martha couldn’t understand. The man caught in the barbed wire tried to wriggle himself free, but only succeeded in getting more tangled.
“I don’t think they’re local,” Philipa whispered in her ear.
He edged closer to them, the panga firmly gripped and ready to strike. He was a predator closing in for the kill. The gun shook.
The noise reverberated in her skull, deafening her. The recoil jerked her hand up a couple centimetres. Philipa’s screams were thankfully muffled. The surprised look in the man’s eyes as he fell to his knees was something she would never forget. He really hadn’t thought she would shoot him. To be honest, neither had she. Pulling the trigger had been an involuntary act. She didn’t even remember squeezing it. Blood gushed out of the wound in his chest. He fell forward onto his face. The bright patio light illuminated the blood as it spread out around him, giving him red wings. The blood trickled between the bricks and seeped into the cement. It was going to be a devil cleaning it up. Heaven only knew how she was going to explain it to the gardener when he arrived in a few hours’ time.
The man caught in the barbed wire shouted something unintelligible as he wrenched himself free, ripping his clothes and leaving behind some of his flesh. He landed on the other side of the wall and ran off into the night.
“What if he comes back with more of his friends?” Philipa asked, still gripping Martha’s nightgown.
“He won’t. Those men are cowards. They attack old women because they think we can’t defend ourselves. Now he knows different.” Philipa loosened her grip on the nightgown and Martha walked over the where Keira lay bleeding and panting. Her body felt as though it vibrated. Every nerve ending tingled. She’d just shot someone. The enormity of the act was almost unreal to her. But the man lying in a pool of his own blood slammed that reality into her. She wanted to throw up, but managed to swallow it back down and focus on what she needed to do to get through the night.
“It’s okay, girl. We’re going to get you some help. You’re going to be fine,” Martha whispered as she knelt next to the dog. Her bones creaked. Her knees weren’t used to going down that far; she hardly ever managed to kneel in church these days. Tears trickled down her cheeks, the pistol still firmly gripped by her right hand. She couldn’t quite bring herself to put it down. “Please get me some towels to wrap Keira’s wounds,” Martha asked Philipa.
“Should we call the cops now?” Philipa asked, staring at the body lying face down on the bricks.
“Don’t you remember what happened to Willie Erasmus a couple years ago? He shot that burglar in his garden and the cops arrested Willie for murder. It was all over the papers. He’s still sitting in jail for defending himself. I don’t know about you, but I’m too old to go to jail. I don’t want to spend the last few years of my life behind bars. Would you please get me those towels?” Martha’s voice sounded tired to her own ears.
“Won’t the neighbours call the cops?” Philipa asked, still staring at the corpse.
“They didn’t when Mrs van Rensburg ran down the street screaming for help while some thugs murdered her husband. You and I were the only ones who stuck our heads out to see what was going on. And do you remember how long it took the cops to show up after you called them?”
“No.” Philipa shook her head.
“Mr van Rensburg was well and truly dead, the killers long gone and none of our neighbours so much as raised an eyebrow until the cops had already shown up. The most they’ll do now is close their windows and make sure all their doors are locked.”
Philipa simply nodded in response, her eyes glued to the corpse.
“Philipa,” Martha raised her voice for the first time. “Please get me those towels and my cell phone so I can call Martin. He’ll know what to do.”
Philipa nodded and moved as though she were sleepwalking. By the time she returned with the towels and the phone, Martha’s left hand was covered in Keira’s blood from keeping pressure on the wound. The dog tried to move her body closer to Martha so she could nuzzle her hand. The movement must have hurt, because only a soft moan escaped from between her jaws.
“It’s okay girl,” Martha said. “You’re going to be just fine.”
Philipa handed Martha the phone, her eyes roaming body parts.
“Stop staring at him,” Martha said as she took the phone, scrolled down to find Martin’s number and hit the call button with a bloody thumb.
“Ma, what’s wrong?” Martin answered on the fifth ring, the worry evident in his voice. A phone call at that time of the morning was always cause for concern. “Are you okay?”
“Not really. Can you come over?” She tried to keep the panic out of her voice.
“Just tell me what’s wrong.”
“I can’t. Not over the phone.” Tears clouded her voice as she cast her eye in the direction of the dead man. She’d avoided looking at him and couldn’t bring herself to look at him properly. But now she wondered if he had a family. Did he have a wife and children? Did they know what he did for a living? Would they be surprised when he didn’t come home? All the questions stormed around in her brain. She wanted to dig her fingers into her own mind and physically remove those thoughts. They were too painful to contemplate. Like everything else, she choked them down and pushed them back, she would deal with them later.
“Okay. I’m coming. I’ll be there in about five minutes.”
The moment he hung up her world fell away. Hysteria and panic rose to the surface. She took a deep breath and willed herself to calm down.
“I can’t fall apart now. I just have to keep it together a little longer,” she whispered to herself. The cell phone fell from her hand. She rocked back and forth while smothering her need to sob. She’d always wondered if she was capable of killing another human being and now she knew the answer. If she hadn’t pulled the trigger then both she and Philipa would have been dead, like so many other old women who’d been targeted because they were considered easy pickings.
She thought of her old friend, Dorothy, who’d been well into her eighties when four men with pangas had broken into her small flat two years ago. Pangas seemed to be the weapon of choice these days. They’d tied up her maid then they all took their turn to rape Dorothy. Martha couldn’t understand why they’d raped her – she was an old woman. They couldn’t have found her sexually attractive. It had to have been some sick and twisted way to torture her, to have power over a little old lady. How very brave of them. Once they’d all had their turn they hacked her to death. All they took were her TV and her cell phone. The maid was left unharmed, which Martha found a little suspicious. Shortly after that Martin had bought her the pistol and insisted that she get her competency for it.
Martha looked down at Keira; the pain in her dog’s eyes threatened her resolve to stay strong. She swallowed the emotional lump in her throat and made soothing sounds which were for her benefit as well as the dogs. Headlights, from what she hoped was Martin’s car, illuminated the back wall. They’d be able to get Keira the help she needed now. Philipa stood behind her, shivering and staring in the direction of the car port.
“Philipa,” Martha said, her voice snappy, “will you stay with Keira while I open the gate for Martin?”
“You’ll have to keep pressure on the wound.”
Philipa nodded once more. In a trance-like state, Philipa knelt down and placed her hands next to Martha’s on Keira’s wound.
“Thank you, Phil,” Martha said. Her knees creaked as she stood up. Her body wasn’t built for this sort of thing anymore. She kept forgetting that she was an old woman and a grandmother. She hadn’t been a young girl for a very long time. Her old bones voiced their objections as she made her way to greet her son and inform him that his mother had committed murder.
By the time she’d reached him, he had already opened the gate and parked his car behind hers. His expression when he saw her let her know how terrible she looked.
“Oh my God, Ma. Whose blood is that?”
“What?” she asked as she looked down at her once-white night gown to discover she was covered in blood. “I think…I think…it’s Keira’s,” she stammered. The site of the blood burst the fragile bubble over her emotions. Martin caught her before she collapsed on the floor.
“Give me the gun, Ma,” Martin said as his calloused hand wrapped itself around hers and managed to pry her fingers off the pistol. His presence gave her strength. She remembered her mother standing over her when she’d fallen and scraped her knee as a child and how her mother had told her that nothing would come from feeling sorry for herself. That things would only get better if she stood up and got on with it. People were defined by their actions in the face of adversity. With her mother’s words ringing in her ears, she took another deep breath and pulled herself together once more. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Martin asked, looking down at her.
“I think you better come see for yourself,” she said, leading him by the hand to the back patio and the corpse.
“Holy shit, Ma.” Martin froze the moment he saw the body. “Did you do that?”
Martha only managed a slight nod.
“Well done,” he said and gave her a tight squeeze. “Are either of you hurt?”
Philipa shook her head.
“Just Keira,” Martha said looking down at her wounded four-legged child.
“There’s an all-night animal clinic in Garsfontein. Auntie Phil, will you be able to take Keira?”
Philipa nodded. For the first time she didn’t look like she was about to faint.
“Ma, you and I are going to have to get rid of the body and luckily I know just the place,” Martin said, scratching his head while examining the body. “How many times did you shoot him?”
“Once, I think.” Martha didn’t sound very sure.
“I think you emptied the clip. A nine-mil is a small calibre and doesn’t do much damage unless you manage to hit the person right in the heart and, from the looks of this guy’s back, you pretty much hit every organ.”
“But I only remember pulling the trigger once.”
“Memory is a funny thing when you’re scared,” Martin said.
“So…we’re not calling the police then?” Philipa asked still sitting with Keira.
“Not unless you want to be arrested and tried for manslaughter. You’ll probably get off on self-defence but you’d still have to sit through a trial and then there’s the possibility of civil suits that this guy’s family might try. But if there’s no body, there’s no crime. No crime, no trial.
So…Auntie Phil we need to put Keira in your car and then put this guy in the back of my bakkie. You up to helping with that?”
Philipa and Martha both nodded.
“Right,” Martin said as he walked towards the man’s head. “Have you looked to see who he is?”
“I’d rather not know. I don’t want to see the face of the man I’ve killed. I know it’s cowardly, but I can’t handle it.”
“I understand, Ma. You don’t have to look at him. Let’s just get him out of here. If you two ladies would take his feet, I’ll take the head and shoulders.”
Martha and Philipa each took hold of a foot. They carried him like a sack of potatoes to Martin’s old Datsun bakkie and threw him in the back with Martin’s tools and other assorted detritus. Martin went back and fetched Keira. He carried her like a baby and gently placed her on the back seat of Philipa’s Peugeot.
“What about all her blood? It’s going to ruin the upholstery,” Philipa whined.
“Don’t worry, I’ve put a towel under her and I’ll clean it up later. Okay?” Martin said with a frown. “Now, we need to get a move on. We’re running out of time. Auntie Phil, do you know how to get to the animal clinic?”
She nodded, climbed into her car and started the engine, while Martin opened the gate, the pistol tucked away in his pocket. Exhaustion gripped Martha’s muscles. When this was over she would sleep for weeks. She barely noticed it when Martin climbed in beside her or when he started the engine. The drive to the SPCA in Silverton, which would ordinarily only take a few minutes felt as though it took all night. A six-foot-high fence topped with rings of barbed wire encircled the property. A thick chain and padlock kept the gate locked and secure. Martin fiddled with a set of keys as he climbed out of the bakkie and walked over to the gate. He looked around; making sure nobody was around. The security guard hut to the right of the gate was in darkness. The guard was most probably fast asleep. Which was something Martha wished she was. A dog barked from inside the SPCA building which started a cacophony of barking. And yet the guard managed to sleep through it all.
The gate squealed in protest as Martin pushed it open. With every sound she expected the guard to come rushing out and shoot her son.
“Why do you have keys for the SPCA?” she asked once he was back inside and sitting next to her.
“I forgot to tell you, I’m now in charge of maintenance here. Been about a week now.”
“And why didn’t you tell me?”
“Things have been a little busy. I just forgot.”
“How could you not tell your mother that you’ve got a new job?”
“Ma, I think we’ve got other things to worry about right now. Like getting rid of a body. Maybe?”
“Yes, quite right. But don’t for a minute think this discussion is over.” It hurt that he hadn’t found the time to tell her that he’d found another job. His in-laws probably knew all about it.
“Yes, mother,” he said as he pulled up in front of the grey concrete building. He always called her mother when he placated her or when he was annoyed. She wasn’t sure which it was this time. A cement walkway led from the dusty parking area to the main entrance. The only light came from the bakkie’s headlights. The darkness smothered her. The noise from the back of the bakkie slamming open resuscitated her.
“Ma, you okay?” Martin asked. The red brake lights illuminated his face and gave him a devilish glow.
“I’m fine,” she said as a cool breeze made her shiver. Her blood-smeared cotton nightie clung to her sweat-drenched body.
“I’m going to need your help getting him out of there,” Martin said. “Can you climb in the back and try and make him sit up, and then I can try and get him on my shoulder.” Martin pulled the body closer, so that his legs dangled over the edge. With Martin’s help she clambered into the back. Using what was left of her fading strength, she pushed him into a seated position. Martin then managed to lift him onto his shoulder and almost buckled under the dead weight. With a grunt he straightened up and walked towards the main entrance. Keys jingled as he unlocked the door and punched in the alarm code. Neon lights flashed on, temporarily blinding Martha. Pet food, chew toys and dog blankets littered the shelves. It looked a bit like her vet’s office.
“It’s this way,” Martin gestured towards an unlit passage. She followed him silently while dogs howled outside.
“So…exactly what are we doing here?” Martha looked around the small room and noticed something that looked like a giant silver oven.
“We’re getting rid of the body.”
“And exactly how are we doing that?”
“We’re cremating him.” Martin said as he dumped the corpse on a gurney. “What did you think we were going to do, feed him to the dogs?”
“Of course not,” Martha said with a touch of indignation. “To be honest I didn’t have a clue how we were going to do that. Maybe bury him or something like that.”
“Uh, no. That’s just looking to be caught. Luckily they’ve been cremating animals for most of the night so the oven’s already quite hot. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so for him to be reduced to ashes.” With that said, he pushed a button and the door of the big metal box in the middle of the room opened. He slid the body from the gurney into the cavern inside what Martha assumed must be the cremator. He pushed another button and the door closed again. Another button was hit and the sound of wind gusting came from inside the oven.
“Come on, let’s get you a cup of tea,” Martin said as he put his arm around her shoulder and led her away from the fiery furnace and the body inside it.
“Yes, I think a cup of tea would go down nicely. Everything looks better after a good cup of tea.”
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