Poison City is the first book in a South African crime series perfect for anyone who loves Lauren Beukes or Ben Aaronovitch, and it arrives in hardback next month.
The first thing the dog does when I walk through the door is sniff the air and say, “You forgot the sherry, dipshit.”
He stares at me, the colour of his eyes shifting between jaundiced yellow and soul-of-a-serial-killer black. He knows I hate that. It’s his lazy-ass way of saying, ‘You open that mouth it better be to say: Sorry, dog. I’ll get right on it, dog.’
That’s how he insists on being referred to, by the way. Just ‘dog’ or ‘the dog’. I’ve tried giving him a name, but he’s not having it.
I drop the rucksack filled with bullets on the kitchen floor. “I’ll get it later,” I say. “Got stuff to do first.”
He growls, then whines and tilts his head to the side, trying to cover all possible responses to my failure to act as an enabler to his alcoholism.
I give him the middle finger.
“You know what?” he says. “I hate you. With every fibre of my being.”
“Love you too, man.”
“Come on, London. You know I need my afternoon sherry. What’s so important you couldn’t stop at the liquor store and buy me a bottle? You got a date? Joined a cult? Is the circus in town? Tell me so I can laugh derisively in your face.”
I sigh. You know all those cute dogs in the movies you saw as a kid? Jock? Benji? Lassie? Well, the dog is nothing like that. He’s the complete opposite of that. He’s the dog equivalent of a pervert in a dirty raincoat, sucking methylated spirits through a loaf of bread while watching porn and cackling to himself. He looks a bit like a border terrier, but don’t let that fool you. Cute and friendly he is not.
But you know what? He’s OK.
Actually, no, I’m lying. He’s not OK. Not by a long shot. He’s like that one friend you’ve known since high school. The one who drinks too much and tells sexist and racist jokes. The one you wouldn’t admit to knowing if you bumped into him with actual people from the real world.
But we’re used to each other by now. And as long as I keep him stocked up on OBs, (Old Brown sherry – the cheapest, nastiest stuff on the market), he’s golden.
I pull out a stool, park myself at the kitchen counter. “We think we’ve found out who’s taking the kids.”
That shuts him up.
Someone has been stealing kids from the townships. Kids who haven’t gone through their naming ceremonies yet. Eleven in the past three months. The families went to ORCU – that’s the Occult Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Force – and they in turn passed it on to Delphic Division. Because let’s face it, ORCU is a waste of space and the closest they’ve ever gotten to the supernatural is daring each other to say Candyman three times in front of the mirror.
ORCU is the public face of the country’s supernatural police. Delphic Division is where the actual work gets done.
The families of the missing kids thought it was a tokoloshe, but I thought differently. That’s why I requested the case. The ages of the missing kids, the way they just vanished into thin air…
It was them. It had to be.
After three years, they were getting back in the game. They thought it had all blown over, that they were forgotten.
They’re very much mistaken.
“Come on,” snaps the dog. “You know my bladder can’t take this kind of suspense. Who’s the naughty thief stealing little kiddy-winks?”
The dog stares at me then erupts into wheezy laughter. Which in turn descends into a horrific coughing fit, making him sounding like an asthmatic coal miner with lung cancer.
“Seriously?” he says, when he finally gets himself under control.
“Would never have pinned that on him. Didn’t think he had the imagination.”
Babalu-Aye is the orisha of disease and illness. (An orisha is what we call a Tier-One supernatural. The word orisha is supposed to refer to the Yoruba gods, but over the years it’s become the catch-all term for anything… other: gods, demons, nature elementals, whatever. There are other tiers below the orisha, but they’re the biggest pains in the arse.)
Everyone thinks of Babalu-Aye as this mild-mannered old god called upon by the sick to make them feel better. Only thing is, that’s not the whole story, because Babalu-Aye likes to cause disease as well. Which he does quite often, apparently.
“You know where he is?” asks the dog.
“And… what? You’re going to just walk in and take him on?”
“No choice. Another kid went missing yesterday. Might still be time to save him.”
“Doubt it,” says the dog cheerfully. “Come on. Forget it. Let’s go out drinking instead. Drinking is good. Hunting gods is bad.”
“You know I can’t. The gods are bad enough as it is. I’m not going to let him think he can just snatch kids whenever he feels like it. Let one get away with it, they all start getting ideas.”
“And tell me. Is this little escapade on the books or off?”
I hesitate. Delphic Division’s budget is being squeezed by pencil-pushers in Parliament, and my boss, Armitage, is under pressure to only take on ‘high-return’ cases. Whatever the hell that means.
But that doesn’t stop Armitage. Oh, no. She just surreptitiously passes me the case file, taps her nose, and tells me, “Take care of it, there’s a good lad.”
Plausible deniability is just one of the super-fun phrases I’ve learned while working at Delphic Division.
But I don’t mind. Not this time. I’ve been waiting for this chance for three years now. It’s the only reason I stayed on at the Division, when it would have been a hell’ve a lot easier to just sink into the drink and let oblivion take me.
The dog plods forward and sniffs the rucksack at my feet. “What’s that smell?”
“Yeah? Well, Tinkerbell’s got cancer or something, because that stinks like a match factory and a methane farm fucked each other and had ugly babies.”
I ignore him, reaching into the cupboard by my knees and pulling out my antique double-barrel sawn-off. It’s a thing of absolute beauty, filigreed and silver-plated. I won it in a game of poker with Mathew Hopkins, an utter psycho who started hunting witches in the 17th century. Last I heard he was still alive and doing his thing over in Russia.
I take a box of shotgun shells from the rucksack, crack open the gun, and slot two into place. I put the remaining six in my pockets.
The lead shot inside the shells has been removed and replaced with petrified dung balls, courtesy of Aka Manah, a Zoroastrian demon who’s currently tenth in line for the throne of Hell. It’s Aka Manah’s job to take care of naughty demons down below. He’s Judge Dredd to their Mega-City One citizens, and every part of him can kill an orisha.
Even his shit.
I really wish I had more shells, but at two thousand rand a pop, these have already destroyed my operational budget.
I shove the shooter inside the rucksack. There’s another box inside, this one filled with thrice-hexed 9mm silver-plated rounds. I slot them into the magazine of my Glock 17, shove the pistol into the back of my trousers and toss the leftover ammo back into the bag. There are a few other little surprises in there as well, but I’m hoping I won’t have to use them. They’re not exactly… low-key.
I turn my attention to the dog. “You coming?”
“What about the Covenant?” he says, giving it one last try. “You can’t just go around killing gods. Armitage should know fucking better than to even ask.”
He actually has a point there. The Covenant is the agreement made centuries ago between mankind and the gods/monsters/supers/orishas/whatever-the-hell you want to call them. It runs along the same lines as Mutually Assured Destruction, where both sides know that if one faction kicks off the whole world will burn. There’s a book the size of a telephone directory filled with supernatural laws we’re all supposed to stick to.
The operative word here being supposed. If everyone obeyed the law I’d be out of a job.
“Just have to make sure I don’t get caught,” I say. “You coming or what?”
The dog sighs. “Got no choice, do I? If you die, who’s going to buy me my sherry?”
“That’s what I love about you, man. You’re all heart.”
Durban, wedged up against the east coast of South Africa, is the dirtiest, strangest, most violent place I’ve ever lived. It’s the soul of South Africa. A sweaty one-night stand of a city where anything goes and the warm Indian Ocean washes all your sins out to sea the next morning.
Durban is a schizophrenic mix of colours and impressions. A serial killer wearing a fake identity, struggling to present a facade of normality to the world. Grey 1970’s concrete buildings, painted with dull greens and reds in an attempt to liven up the drabness. Dusty skylines, shading up from sepia to blue. Street signs advertising craft markets and muti doctors. Litter everywhere, newspapers, pamphlets, fruit peel, broken glass, everything stepped on and pummelled into mulch, a carpet of dirty memories and forgotten troubles.
Then on top of this is the brightness. The yellow ANC signs, the red EFF billboards. The vibrant, clashing colours of the thousands of street traders who come here from all over the continent, about half of them smuggled aboard the ships that draw into the busiest port in Africa: Swahili, Tanzanian, Malawian, Indian, Zimbabwean (and, increasingly, Russian).
Walking through the streets is an attack on the senses. The bright clothes, the stabbing sunlight, the conflicting smells of fruit and spices, curry powder and cinnamon, marijuana and sweat.
That’s the city itself. But then, right at the edge of all that you have a tiny oasis called the Golden Mile. A bubble of rich obliviousness, the expensive cream floating on top of the scum, uncaring of what goes on beneath.
The Golden Mile looks like it has been transported here from Venice Beach. Four miles of prime beachfront real estate stretching from the Blue Lagoon to the Durban Harbor. A wide, brick-paved promenade fronted by hotels and apartment blocks, populated by tourists and surfers, joggers and cyclists, dog walkers and hipsters.
This is where I live, right on the outer edge of the Obliviousness Bubble. A tiny apartment in Windemere Road. Not because I’m rich, you understand. But because I bought the place when the beachfront still belonged to the drug dealers and pimps. It kind of still belongs to them, but they’ve gone a bit more upmarket now. All that foreign money.
I step out of the cool lobby of the apartment building into a furnace oven. I squint. The sidewalk is steaming, the moisture from the recent storm hanging in the air, a wet heat that clings to me like damp clothing.
Summer in Durban. Nothing like it for humidity, hot weather, and bad tempers.
I unlock the door of my faded green Land Rover and climb in. She’s an ancient thing that devours diesel at a rate I didn’t think possible and breaks down about seventy percent of the time she’s on the road. But I’ll never get rid of her. We’ve been through a lot together.
I flick a hidden switch beneath the dash. My own personal security device that cuts off the flow of diesel to the engine when I’m not using her. I’m not saying Durban beachfront is particularly crime-ridden – it’s the same as anywhere in South Africa – but over the past year thieves have tried to steal my car thirteen times. That I know of.
The dog jumps into the passenger seat and checks himself out in the wing mirror while I peel out into traffic, do an illegal U-turn, and head along the Golden Mile. North Beach passes to our left in flashes of sun and shade as I head around the traffic circles and deeper into town. Our destination isn’t too far away. About five kilometres as the bird flies.
“Hey, London,” says the dog after a while. “Got a question for you.”
London. Or ‘London Town’. My unasked-for nickname. My real name is Gideon Tau, but I got saddled with London because that’s where I’m from. I worked in the Met for fifteen years before moving over here under something of a cloud. Oh, and ‘London Town’ because it sounds sort-of-but-not-really like ‘London Tau’. All the wags at the Division think it’s hilarious.
“As long as it’s not like your last question. I told you that’s what Google is for. Just make sure safe-search is switched off.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. You know that movie?”
“The one about the incest. With the nazis. And the terrorists trying to take down the government.”
I do a quick mental search of all the movies we’ve watched recently. None of them match up.
“Not ringing any bells. Give me specifics.”
“Come on, man. You know the one. The space nazis and the brother and sister? And the dad cuts off the kid’s hand and he’s all like, ‘N-o-o!’. ”
I frown. “Are you talking about The Empire Strikes Back?”
“That’s the one!”
Space nazis and incest. I suppose that’s one way to describe it. “What about it?”
“Well… were you guys really stupid back then?”
“‘Cause the guy’s name is Darth Vader, right? And it’s supposed to be a big surprise that he’s the kid’s dad, yeah?”
“It was a big surprise. This was before the internet. People went into a movie without knowing the whole plot beforehand.”
“Yeah but… the guy’s name. Darth Vader. Vader is Dutch for father. Darth means dark. His name literally means Dark Father.”
I flick the visor down to block out the afternoon sun. Left my shades back in the flat again. “Well…” I say defensively. “So what? We didn’t go into it expecting him to be someone’s father. You’re only acting the smartarse with hindsight.”
“Bullshit. I would have called that right there in the theater.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I say, stopping behind a long line of cars. I lean out the window and see that a minibus taxi has stopped dead in the middle of the street to pick up passengers.
“I would have, man. We’re not even talking spoilers here. Just common sense.”
I ignore him and drum my fingers on the wheel. My gaze drifts to the right. I can just see the metal fountain outside the entrance to uShaka Marine World. Families are filing inside to spend an enormous amount of money pretending they’re in an upside-down shipwreck while they watch sharks swimming around behind safety glass.
Insider’s secret: the water holds more than sharks. A Jengu water spirit calls the place her home and she steals a tiny piece of every visitor’s soul to feed on. Not a lot, you understand. Just enough to keep going. The equivalent of a couple of cents out of every Rand spent. We do monthly checks on her to make sure she’s not overstepping the mark.
The taxi driver eventually decides he’s crammed enough bodies into his minibus and pulls off with a spurt of oily smoke, allowing us to get moving again. I take the next right onto Prince Street and find an empty spot to park.
“This it?” asks the dog.
I nod across the street at a dirty white wall covered with peeling paint. The peaks of a cluster of buildings jut up above the wall, stark against the blue sky.
“Addingtons,” I say. “Used to be a kid’s hospital. Been closed for thirty years.”
“Why the hell is Babalu-Aye hiding out here?”
“Word is, it’s his den. Where he holds court. Not a bad choice, really. Central location. Easy access to the shops, the beach. It’s prime real estate.”
I climb out of the Land Rover and spot a thin guy down the street wearing a lumo yellow safety vest. He jogs over, a huge smile on his face.
“Good day to you. I am Moses. I will watch your car, yes? Take care of it.” He looks me up and down. “You are going to a wedding today?”
I frown. “No. Why?”
“Oh. You are a very smartly dressed man, then.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, ignoring a sound from the dog that sounded suspiciously like a snort of laughter. I take a fifty rand note from my wallet and hand it over. Ten times what people usually pay car guards. “You been on this patch long?”
He makes the money disappear. “Two years.”
I nod at Addingtons. “Anything strange going on over there?”
His smile vanishes. He shrugs, uneasy.
“Tell me,” I say.
“Lots of talk,” he says reluctantly. “No one sleeps there. Not anymore. They say it’s haunted. That’s all I know. I don’t ask about that place.”
I nod and grab my satchel.
“You’re going in there?” asks Moses, surprised.
“Oh.” He squints at me. “If you don’t come back, can I have your car?”
“Sure,” I say. “If you come in and get my keys.”
The dog and I cross the street and do a full circuit around the property. It’s pretty big, at least three acres. The gates are padlocked but someone has used a crowbar to bend the bars apart.
We slip inside, me being careful not to get rust and dirt on my shirt. The dog sees this.
“Why are you dressed like you’re auditioning for a role in Inception?”
I look down at my clothes. A Gucci three piece, sans the jacket. White shirt, sleeves rolled up. It cost me an absolute fortune, but buying nice clothes is my one vice.
“It’s how I always dress.”
“Yeah, but… you don’t think this kind of thing is better suited to jeans and t-shirt? That shit is going to get ruined. I’ve told you this before.”
“Yeah, but you know I don’t listen to a word you say.”
He’s probably right. But I’m not going to let him know that.
I check out our surroundings. We’re standing on the ruined driveway leading up to the hospital. Uneven grass spurts up in tufts and clumps. Weeds push through cracked asphalt.
We approach the building. Empty windows gaze down at us, like the vacant eyes of a retail worker at Christmas. The main door is wooden, recessed beneath a portico and balcony. Just below the balcony is a frieze of what looks like Jesus standing with some children. They’re holding fruit, the only splash of colour on the dirty beige paint.
There’s a silence here, a stifling emptiness that hangs over everything.
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly. “You ready?”
“Ready,” says the dog.
A surge of… energy… power… rushes through my body, tingling through my veins, sparking into every corner of my being. I feel a wave of euphoria, a sense of well-being I haven’t felt in three years. A golden warmth that slides through my soul like a liquid orgasm.
Little known fact, and not one they tell you before you join up. Wielding magic (or Shining, as I call it) is like using drugs. From the way it makes you feel, to the effects of the magic itself. It changes you inside. Your body comes to crave it, and every time you use shinecraft (again, one of mine), it picks a little bit of your DNA apart, unravelling you in ways you can never predict.
Keep using it and one day you’re going to go for an X-ray on a routine medical and find an extra brain growing in your lungs. Or you’ll wake up one day and find your chest has become transparent, a window looking out into another world. (This happened to a guy who used to work at Delphic Division. Near as we can figure it from checking the configuration of the stars in the sky through his chest, the world was a couple thousand light years away. The guy eventually got pulled through the hole in his chest, literally sucked inside out. I was there. It wasn’t pleasant.)
So yeah, magic is a drug. Don’t do it, kids.
I shudder in delight and try to pull the fragments of my mind back from wherever they’re tripping out to. “Jesus, that feels good,” I say.
“Shut up,” mutters the dog. “You’re making me feel dirty.”
I blink. My vision swims back into focus. I’m warded now. Protected by an invisible body shield constructed from shinecraft. Kind of like the Holtzman generator shields in Dune. It won’t stop a bullet, but it will absorb most other kinds of attack. A fist, a hammer, a knife, that kind of thing. Up to a point, of course. No need to get cocky about it.
I’m filled with nervous energy. It feels like my skin is thrumming gently, ultra-sensitive. All my senses strain outward, trying to escape the confines of my body.
I push the door open. No creak. Odd. Beyond is an open-roofed atrium. Cracked terra-cotta tiles covered in loose earth and dried mud. No footprints.
“No one’s been here for a while,” says the dog.
“Thanks, Sherlock.” I pull the shotgun out of my satchel, then slide the bag around so it’s resting against my kidneys. Easier to reach. “Smell anything?”
The dog pads softly ahead of me and sniffs around. “There’s something… I can’t identify what it is. Nothing close, though.”
I walk through the atrium, past pillars covered with tags and stencilled graffiti. There’s an alcove in the wall up ahead, a statue of a child with its arms broken off kneeling on green marble.
Through more doors into what must have once been the reception area. Paintings on the wall, faded and chipped: Li’l Devil, a cartoon character I remember from when I was a kid. A ghost wearing a top hat. A badly drawn Daffy Duck knock-off.
A corridor beyond. The afternoon sun smearing through dirty windows, like walking through a hazy dream. The roof panels are mostly gone, gaping holes showing second-story rooms. The paint is peeling from the walls like sunburned skin, sloughing off in ugly damp patches.
My heart beats erratically in my chest. I don’t know if it’s the after-effects of the shinecraft, fear, or anticipation. My shirt sticks to my back. Sweat dripping into my eyes. There’s no sound except my breathing and my boots crunching across the detritus of the past.
We follow the corridor deeper into the ruined building. We turn left and it’s as if the light has been turned off. No windows here. I pause as my eyes adjust. Wooden floors. Badly painted pictures on the yellow walls: a rasta girl with ‘HAIR’ painted beneath her. A little girl in a purple dress and high heels that are too big for her. Strip lights hanging from a high ceiling.
-Where to?- says the dog.
It takes a moment for me to notice he’s talking mind to mind. He only does that when he’s worried. When there’s danger around.
I shrug. I have no idea. I peer into each room we pass: old, cast-iron cots, a wall chart of a skeleton that someone has drawn a moustache onto, broken sinks, a room filled with patient records in creased brown folders, rotting in the damp.
We find the stairs and climb to the next floor. The first room is huge, easily double the size of my flat. Somebody has ripped a load of doors from their hinges and piled them up on the floor. There are no paintings in here. Just two words written high up on the wall.
-Could do with a drink myself,– says the dog.
I don’t answer. We move through the room to another corridor. This one is pitch black, all the doors closed. Something feels… funky here. Just… not right. Hard to explain. It’s something you get taught in Delphic Division, how to pick up on the presence of an orisha, or even just magic in general. It feels like bugs are crawling under your skin, sliding along your nerves trying to get out.
A moment later the dog drops to the floor, his gums pulled back in a snarl. His ears flatten against his head and he squirms on the ground.
–Jesus fucking Christ!– he moans. –How are you standing there? Can’t you hear that?-
I move my head around. I think I might be able to hear something… high-pitched, just on the edge of my hearing. But I’m not sure.
“What is it?” I clutch the sawn-off nervously, looking over my shoulder.
The dog doesn’t answer. I stand protectively over him as he writhes, waiting for an attack I’m sure is going to come.
He finally pushes himself back to his feet, panting heavily. “Fuck, man. That was not pleasant.” He squints up at me. “You seriously didn’t hear that?”
I shake my head.
“Lucky bastard. It was like every ultrasonic whistle ever made was being blown at the same time. Except it wasn’t a whistle. It was screaming.”
“Yeah, man. Screaming.”
I peer into the darkness. “What did it sound like?”
“The fuck you mean, what did it sound like? I just told you. Screaming.”
“I mean did it sound animal? Human?”
“London, it doesn’t matter what it sounded like. If whatever made that noise is in here, we should be out there. End of.”
“We can’t just leave.”
“We can. It’s what our legs are for. And our brains.”
“You go. Wait in the car or something. I’ll be out soon.”
The dog shakes himself in irritation. “Yeah. Right. If I leave you, ain’t no way you’re coming out again.”
“Then shut up your whining and let’s get this finished,” I snap.
The dog stares at me for a long moment before turning and walking into the corridor. I’m sure I hear him mutter “cock weasel” beneath his breath. His favourite insult for me when I really annoy him.
The corridor branches into a second passage that has been ravaged by fire. The ceiling and floor are soot-black. The paint on the walls has bubbled and peeled. The little flakes of paint look like leaves, white on one side, black on the other. They’re moving silently, shivering slowly back and forth as if someone was breathing gently on them.
There’s an open door at the far end of the corridor. I approach it slowly. That’s where Babalu-Aye is. I can feel it.
I pat my pockets. Shells close at hand. Two in the gun. Glock in the back of my pants. Tattoos ready and waiting. Shit. I’m not prepared for this. The dog was right. I shouldn’t be doing this. At least, not alone. If this was officially sanctioned I’d have two teams of five backing me up.
I curl my hands around the grip of the sawn-off. I take a deep breath, then swing around the door, gun levelled, watching for the slightest movement.
Images and impressions flash through my mind. Large room, the largest so far. Green paint. Wall paintings faded by time. A swept concrete floor. Windows painted black. The smell of piss and vinegar.
Movement from the shadows to my left. I swing the gun. Something heaves through the darkness. Way too big to be the missing kid. The shape makes a growling sound and I pull the trigger. An explosion of noise. A flash of white that burns my retinas. Something drops heavily to the floor.
I squint, trying to readjust to the darkness. I move forward. The shape on the ground isn’t moving. It’s big. The size of a lion. A hairless, pink-grey face, all muzzle and yellow teeth.
“That was my dog, you piece of shit,” says a voice, and something slams into my back and sends me flying twenty feet through the air to smash up against the wall with enough force to actually break the concrete.
Thank fuck I’m Warded, that’s all I can say.