Messenger to Riverlea

by Tom Rhoyd
Bertsham, South Africa

Back at the station, ten policemen squeezed into the Captain’s room – eight of us from the original stake-out team that went out earlier that morning, then two members from the Special Task Team who had arrived in our absence. Special or not, everyone ignored them in their military paraphernalia till the Captain introduced them. I had a copy of the rap sheet in my hand. Simon Esterhuyse, I read, followed by a list of his criminal record-—drugs, armed robbery, cash heist, hijacking, all gang related. Last known residence Riverlea.

I was looking again at the scratchy photo. No mistaking, it was him. Simon.

The Captain summed up: “Gentlemen, our man is on the run. We got some of his associates this morning, one in the morgue, two under arrest. Thank you to Sergeant Ndlovu and his team.”

Sergeant Ndlovu took a mock bow and lifted his Uzi sub-machine gun, which he still carried, grasped in one hand like a fighting stick. He was a burly man with a swarthy growth of beard. The Captain continued: “Whatever game they were cooking, it’s gone. Esterhuyse is probably going to ground as we speak. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what our eyes and ears tell us. In the meantime, get ready to move out at any time.”

As the others filed out of the room, I stayed behind. The Captain looked at me quizzically. “The reservist…?”

“Yes, sir. Roderick. I know the fugitive, sir.”

“You know Simon Esterhuyse?”

“Yes, sir. We were in the same high school. In Riverlea.”

“You guys were in the same gang, or what?”

“Sort of. Not for very long.”

“And you still know him?”

“I know his girlfriend. Since high school.”

The Captain gave me a long look. “And you think she might know where he is?” “I don’t know that, sir. But maybe she can get a message to him.”

“A message?”

“To hand himself over. Maybe we don’t have to have a manhunt.”

“Constable, you and Simon and the girlfriend, I don’t care what you did in school. But if she can help us now, by all means, go and talk to her. And remember, Esterhuyse either walks out on his feet or we’ll carry him out feet first.”

I cut across the industrial areas and the coloured townships of southwestern Johannesburg to the cluttered, drab streets of Riverlea. The house was at the end of a pot-holed road running down to reed-covered marshy ground, that I remembered as always rising in flood in summer and leaving the road covered in muck. It was a small brick house with a tin roof. scraps of paint still sticking to the unplastered walls here and there. The chicken-wire fence in front was sagging and half overgrown with climbing weeds. Large stepping-stones led through the equally neglected front yard to the door, which was open. I stopped outside, knocked loudly and called, hello.

Tant Elsie came to the door. She recognized me but her eyes kept looking while she took in the uniform. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “I hope you’ve got nothing bad to say.”

“No, tannie. I just need to talk to Chantelle.”

“Chantelle? I didn’t know, you and her—”

“It’s about Simon,” I said.

Her face said it all. A heaviness settled on her ample features. “That man,” she said. “I will call her.”

Chantelle entered through one of the doors leading off the front room. She carried a small child perched on one hip. She was still pretty, though her face bore the marks of the years.

She looked at me with an anxious look that killed the light in her eyes. “You have a message from Simon?”

“I want you to get a message to Simon.”

Her eyes searched my face. “What happened, Roderick?”

“Serious stuff. The Booysens police are on his tracks. It would be best if he gave himself up before they run him down.”

“He’s my boyfriend, you know.”

“I know. That’s why I am here. You must talk to him, if you can, before things turn ugly.”

There was a long silence before she spoke again. “You know, he’s the father of little Timothy.” She hoisted the child higher on her hip. “He doesn’t come here often. I don’t know when I’ll see him.”

“Look, Chantelle. This is bad. Either he turns himself in or they are going to hunt him down. And I mean, hunt.”

It was as if she wasn’t listening. She smiled into the eyes of her child’s upturned face. “He’s such a pretty child, isn’t he? And I love him and look after him, and he’s going to go to a good school, away from here. Why doesn’t his father want to come back to us?” She looked at me despairingly. “Why doesn’t he?”

“What is it going to be, Chantelle?”

“You promise to protect him? I mean, if you find him?”

“I’ll do the best I can. I will talk to the captain. Do you know where he could be hiding out?”

“He’s got a place in Jeppestown.” She kept looking at me with distraught eyes. “He takes other girls there. Do you think he loves them like he loved me?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

She was sobbing quietly behind a clenched hand held to her eyes. “Promise…?”


She told me the address. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll arrest him before anything happens.”

As I turned to leave, she ran after me and grabbed my shoulder. “He’s not going to give up. Oh, God, I know. You are going to kill him!”

I held her hand before peeling it off my shoulder. “I’ll do my best, promise.”

She stayed behind, hugging her child close to her face. Tant Elsie accompanied me to the gate. She linked arms with me. “You know, you youngsters were such a nice bunch in high school,” she remarked.

“That was ten years ago, tannie.”

“I know, I know. Times change. Just look at you, look how you have changed.”

“I haven’t forgotten, tannie. I am trying to help.”

She held my wrist tighter, pulling my arm closer to herself. “You must come back to church again. We miss your guitar music in the choir.”

“Sorry about all this,” I said.

She watched me go. When I turned the corner, she was still standing in the rusty old gate.

Back at the station, I reported to the captain. He called the sergeant over and gave him the address. “Check this out.”

Two hours later we moved out. I was again in the car with Sergeant Ndlovu driving. He had his Uzi stuck in the passenger foot well. Beside him, Detective Moller was checking his gun and tucking fresh clips into his bulletproof for easy access in his usual stolid, methodical fashion.

I had the rap sheet in my hand again, looking at Simon’s picture. It was an old photo, a young man staring jauntily at the police photographer, no regret or fear on his face. I wondered if Simon still looked the same. I felt apprehensive about coming face to face with him again after all the years since school.

A skinny hand and wrist reached across the back seat and jabbed a thumb at the picture. “I’ve been after this guy for a year,” Detective Sekwele said with grim satisfaction. He was a small wiry man, one of the backroom boys in Detective, best I could tell. “Watch,” he said. “I’m going to kick his ass big time today.” He giggled and tugged at his bulletproof as he settled back on the seat. His holstered Z88 looked too large on his thin waist.

I turned away to look through the side window. What did he think this was — shooting ducks at the funfair? I smoothed the rap sheet flat on the seat beside me.

17B Margaret was a survivor — an ornate Victorian house from the early mining days, now dilapidated and squeezed between multi-story industrial buildings. The owner rented rooms by the day. A tenant matching the rap sheet photo was in one of them.

Three steps lead up to the narrow porch. The old wooden front door with stained glass panels was sticky. Sergeant Ndlovu kicked it open with the flat of his foot. As we piled into a dark and musty hallway, a middle-aged African appeared, the owner. He confirmed the tenant was in his room — down the passage, last door on the right. The captain told him to go back to his room and stay there. As his door opened and closed, I saw a boy looking out with shiny eyes.

A loud explosion made us jump — the glass panel in the door behind us shattered. There were wild shouts as the men sought refuge, left and right. Two more shots struck with a vicious smack somewhere in the passage. Sergeant Ndlovu fired a short burst from his Uzi up the passage — bullets struck the floorboards in a ragged line, kicking up dust and splinters. Then there was no sign of the fugitive, no sound. A young girl’s voice screaming behind the owner’s door was quickly hushed.

The men stand rigid in tense silence, guns at the ready, waiting for orders. I turn to the captain. My voice sounds strained and hushed: “Captain. I promised. Let me talk to him.”

The captain gestures for me to advance. I raise my voice. “Simon,” I call. “Do you hear me? It’s Roderick here from school. Simon?”

There is no response and no sound. Shadows blacken the dim passage, nothing moves. I call again, aware of the futility of it all as my voice finds no echo and fades. “Listen, Simon. You can’t get away. Hand yourself over.”

“Get back,” the captain calls.

“For God’s sake, listen to me, Simon. You can get out of this. I saw Chantelle today—”

A door is wrenched open. The terrible ripping sound of automatic fire tears the silence and fills our ears. A dark shape, a man, Simon, jumps from the door and makes for the back door. He keeps firing on automatic from the waist. Now there are other noises, men shouting hoarsely, incomprehensibly, and other muzzle blasts that envelop the passage, and all of us, in a torrent of sound. The back door is locked. Simon swings around. The weapon drops from his hand. He falls back against the door and slips down to the floor. He remains sitting, one leg buckled under him, the other stretched out to the front.

“Cease fire,” the Captain’s urgent high voice cuts across the confusion. “Hold it. That’s enough. Hold your fire.”

Suddenly there is an awful silence. A child is screaming again behind one of the closed doors. The passage is murky with acrid gun smoke. The two Special Forces men advance slowly, weapons held at the ready next to their cheeks. From behind they look like hunched beasts stalking on stiff legs. One of them nudges Simon’s AK across the floorboards with the toe of his boot. “He’s dead,” the other calls to us.

Sergeant Ndlovu steps up to Simon and kicks him in the ribs. “Inja!” The sergeant is still holding his submachine gun with two hands, the sling wrapped around his forearm.

“That’s enough, sergeant,” the captain calls. “Get hold of forensics.”

Now I step up to Simon. Blood has puddled between his legs. A gangster, old school mate, boyfriend, but not a dog he was. I brush my hand over his face to close the eyes.

Two officers drag a young woman from Simon’s room. She is naked and desperately clutching a sheet to her front. Her juvenile face–perhaps not yet sixteen–is distorted in fear and shame. I try to block Simon from her view. The captain is in front of me.

“Well, we did try,” he says.

“It’s terrible.”

The captain shrugs. “We did it without an officer down.”

I walk away. The captain calls after me. “Constable, you did well.”

I raise a hand and carry on walking, foot in front of foot, hands empty, down the passage, through the front door. Detective Sekwele beat me to the porch. He is at the far end, bent over, gripping the rail. He turns his back on me. I see that his holster is empty.

I walk down the steps, into the street. Daylight is blinding; all is quiet. It seems as if the bright light of day has sucked the life out of everything. My eyes slip to the sky, where we all thought we’d fly. One day. Back then. When the sky was the limit and we were game.

We shared a reefer behind the bicycle sheds, you and I, Simon. Then you stuck with drugs and I played guitar in church on Sundays. As fate would have it…

Now I’m looking at the empty sky, thick with dust and industrial murk, and with a tight knot gathering in my throat, I know I will have to take another ride to Riverlea.

During my years at ‘varsity in various under and post-graduate roles, I had some publishing successes away from my degree courses. Thereafter, I moved into the corporate world to write innumerable technical reports. After too many years of that tedium, I moved back to writing the real hard stuff – short stories. To keep body and soul together, I do consulting in fields related to my degree majors. It beats starving in a garret or writing advertising copy. Otherwise, I am married, with family and the usual accoutrements of suburban life, in a place not far from that other city, Soweto. I like places where the wind blows and trees and rocks whisper.
— Tom Rhoyd