Authors: Paul Mendelson
Tags: #South Africa
The Serpentine Road
Colonel Vaughn de Vries 
South Africa (2015)
The Serpentine Road
Also by Paul Mendelson
The First Rule of Survival
Constable • London
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Constable
Copyright © Paul Mendelson 2015
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.
UK ISBN: 978-1-47211-947-6 (hardback)
UK ISBN: 978-1-47211-137-1 (trade paperback)
UK ISBN: 978-1-47211-140-1 (ebook)
is an imprint of
Constable & Robinson Ltd
100 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DY
An Hachette UK Company
The actions of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) and the events surrounding the attack at the Heidelberg Tavern in Cape Town on 31 December 1993 are fact; the bombing of the Victoria Drinking Hall is fictitious.
Similarly, there are many real addresses and places within this story, but some are imagined. The opinions of some of the characters about real people involved in contemporary South African history, whether alive or dead, are those of the character alone – this is a fictional story.
‘Metro’ police officers act within the centre of Cape Town alone, and are primarily there to reassure residents and tourists of their safety, dealing with by-law infringements, traffic offences and community policing. The SAPS are the general police service throughout the country.
Oranjezicht is a residential area just above the CBD of Cape Town on the lower slopes of Table Mountain, affording panoramic views of Cape Town waterfront from one side and the near vertical face of Table Mountain on the other.
He stares, aghast, at the smoking void where the façade of the Victoria Drinking Hall had stood for the previous sixty years. Above and beyond the ruin, Devil’s Peak is shrouded in fast moving dark cloud and rain falls sporadically but hard, diagonally across the taped-off streets onto ambulance men and police officers surrounding the scene.
South African Police Captain Vaughn de Vries can make out eight blanket-covered mounds in human form, laid out side by side in rows four deep, and feels his fists clench, jaw tighten. The smell of cooking meat is not the sweet
smoke of the summer just ending, but acrid, choking. Twenty-three days before, he attended the Heidelberg Tavern bombing, not one kilometre away. To the whites of Cape Town, this is a senseless atrocity. He and his fellow officers had watched silently at the station, bile rising, Nelson Mandela walking from Victor Verster Prison amidst the cheering throng, the now inevitable path for South Africa indelibly signposted: elections, black majority rule, President Mandela; the end, many believe, of their cherished country. Yet, three years on, dates for elections set, world watching, still the APLA, armed wing of the Pan African Congress, targets innocent civilians at churches and bars. This is the second within the suburb of Observatory: four dead at the Heidelberg, at least eight here; students, adults and the elderly; white and black and coloured.
He hears his name barked:
‘Captain de Vries. Take that vehicle, follow me. We have information on the suspects’ escape route. Move.’
De Vries salutes, sprints to the van, sees another officer jump into the passenger seat, guns the engine, follows in the wake of the huge police van and his commanding officer, Major Kobus Nel, who breaks through the cordon, heads up towards Main Road and takes a sharp left towards Rondebosch. De Vries’s vehicle howls as he accelerates up the hill, moans as he turns. He catches glimpses of rubberneckers, covered against the rain and wind, but ashen faced, their white complexions sickly green in the faltering dusk and flickering street lamps.
He turns to his passenger.
‘Who are you?’
‘Constable Mitchell Smith, sir, Rondebosch.’
‘De Vries, Captain, Observatory. You know my CO, Major Nel?’
Smith shouts above the engine noise: ‘No, sir.’
‘Taskmaster. Do as he says; don’t think for yourself. You get it?’
The vehicle ahead pushes through red robots at the hospital junction, bears left and drops down onto Settlers Way, crosses four lanes, accelerates onto the N2 freeway. On the vehicle radio, they can hear shouted directions in a mixture of English and Afrikaans, hysterical and contradictory, barely comprehensible beneath a blanket of interference and static. De Vries discerns Nel’s bark above the cacophony:
‘Khayelitsha, Pama Road . . . Grey building.’
The rain is falling harder now, without respite, driven across the freeway by the gusting wind: a sharp summer cold front hitting town. The sky is now completely dark but for a pale halo of light around the mountains on the horizon; the freeway lights are out. As they pass the cooling towers and head towards DF Malan airport, the front tyres lose traction momentarily and De Vries struggles to regain control.
‘Shit. Keep a lookout for them ahead. I can’t keep up in this
De Vries struggles with the gearbox, wills the vehicle on, steers hard into the buffeting wind. There are few other vehicles on the road, a dangerous enough stretch without the hazardous conditions. As they pass under one of the new pedestrian bridges, built to prevent the squatter camp dwellers from trying to cross six lanes of fast-moving traffic, De Vries looks up: the squatters have been dropping lumps of concrete onto cars beneath them; half a dozen individual fatal incidents; a huge pile-up had cost seven lives just five weeks back.
The road rises as they pass the end of the runway, the airport itself quiet and dark. Already, De Vries knows, more people arrive in South Africa as sanctions are lifted and the pariah state is re-welcomed back into the world. What kind of country will it be that raises its head amongst its peers?
Suddenly, Smith shouts: ‘Left turn ahead. Left, left, left.’
De Vries swerves onto the slip road, the back of the van slides outwards and he struggles to steer into the spin and bring the vehicle under control, hears Smith gasp at his side. Ahead, in what seems like thick, fast-moving mist, De Vries can see the larger police vehicle pulling away from him again, thinks he will lose it, squints through the windscreen barely cleared by the stuttering wipers. Everything is
in this outfit, nothing works, nothing functions. What a country we’re going to give them; economy fucked, infrastructure crumbling, people starving. Beneath the roar of the rain on the roof and the engine straining, he mouths the words: ‘But, for fuck’s sake, we’re giving it to you, so don’t go fucking killing our people or we’ll fucking kill you back.’
* * *
He sees the vehicle pull off the tarmac surface, catches up with it, watches jiggling rear lights as both vehicles thunder along the rough unsurfaced road, tyres in potholes throwing up orange-brown ejaculations of mud. Ahead of them, at a deserted crossroads, a damp grey dwelling constructed of breeze blocks and corrugated iron sits dripping in the white light of a single lamp post, and a metallic green Ford Escort stands nose first in a partially fenced front yard.
De Vries can see Nel and three other white officers, armed and squatting behind their vehicle. Smith winds down the passenger side window, struggles against the oozing stiffness of the old mechanism.
‘Across the way there,’ Nel orders in his deep, strident voice, eyes blazing, sweat on his upper lip. ‘De Vries, stay by your vehicle, take the sightlines across the crossroads, keep anyone else out of the scene. You,’ he points the muzzle of his handgun at Smith. ‘I want you at the perimeter of the yard to this shit-hole. Check the green car, guard our backs. You got it?’
They acknowledge the orders, watch Nel back off, keeping low, order his men to follow him. De Vries knows them all: Mike de Groot, Sheldon Rich, Johan Esau. There is another in the driver’s seat, could be Joey Swanepoel, left to guard the vehicle, keep the engine running.
De Vries climbs out of the van, draws his weapon, holds it in both hands, balances it on the roof of the van; he scans 270 degrees, sees no one. This is not a night to be out on the street, not a time to be taunting the armed white policemen, high on a righteous mission. Smith has taken his place at the corner of the tiny plot. De Vries sees him feel the bonnet of the green Ford, check the doors, open the boot, shake his head.
Shouts from inside the dwelling; a shot, screams, then a dozen rounds like frenzied drum beats, a woman’s wails. De Vries swings around, his weapon pointed at the doorway. He can see Smith squatting behind the green car, weapon primed, hears more shouts, a woman begging, imploring; then swearing, Nel’s shout, two final shots – an epilogue. A minute flash of silver catches his eye at the side of the shack; a semblance of movement. He thinks he makes out a figure. He raises his gun, aware his hands are wet from rain and sweat, the muzzle shaking. Another movement, perhaps a scraping sound, a high-pitched, almost whispered command. He tightens his grip, feels the trigger bite into the joint of his index finger. Something tells him not to fire: it is a child, children. He tilts his head. The rain makes him blink, re-focus; he sees eyes stare back at him; too small, too low to be an adult. With his left hand, he pushes down the muzzle of his gun, squints, discerns nothing but the sound of heavy raindrops beginning to fall again on the tin-roofed shacks around him. If he has seen children – seen any living animal – it, or they, have run away down the narrow alley between the two rows of shacks and tiny houses, beneath the sagging lines which steal electricity from the looming pylons at the end of the encampment, into the maze of the dark and filthy township.
He looks across to see Nel and the three officers exit the building, senses more than sees shock and fear on the faces of the young subordinates, their legs weak.
‘Next junction, grey house. Go.’
De Vries does not know whether this is an order to him or to Nel’s men. He watches them stumble into the vehicle, the sound of the engine revving, back-firing, jolting into gear. It passes De Vries, turns again onto the main thoroughfare and heads away, thick fumes in its wake.
De Vries looks over to Smith, still crouching. He turns full circle, scanning the shacks and passages, sees no movement, scurries across to the van, crouches next to him.
De Vries is dry-mouthed: