Authors: Lauren Beukes
Tags: #Mystery, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Contemporary, #Urban Fantasy
In Zoo City, it's impolite to ask.
Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg's skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.
Shielding my eyes – morning has broken and there's no picking up the pieces – I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoît doesn't so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.
The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn't know that my computer is out of bounds. Let's just say I'm precious about my work. Let's just say it's not entirely legal.
I take hold of the laptop on either side and gently tilt it over the edge of my desk. At thirty degrees, the Mongoose starts sliding down the front of the laptop. He wakes with a start, tiki tavi claws scrabbling for purchase. As he starts to fall, he contorts in the air and manages to land feet first. Hunching his stripy shoulders, he hisses at me, teeth bared. I hiss back. The Mongoose realises he has urgent flea bites to attend to.
Leaving the Mongoose to scrolf at its flank, I duck under one of the loops of rope hanging from the ceiling, the closest I can get to providing authentic Amazon jungle vines, and pad over the rotten linoleum to the cupboard. Calling it a cupboard is a tad optimistic, like calling this dank room with its precariously canted floor and intermittent plumbing an apartment is optimistic. The cupboard is not much more than an open box with a piece of fabric pinned across it to keep the dust off my clothes – and Sloth, of course. As I pull back the gaudy sunflower print, Sloth blinks up at me sleepily from his roost, like a misshapen fur coat between the wire hangers. He's not good at mornings.
There's a mossy reek that clings to his fur and his claws, but it's earthy and clean compared to the choke of stewing garbage and black mould floating up the stairwell. Elysium Heights was condemned years ago.
I reach past him to pull out a vintage navy dress with a white collar, match it up with jeans and slops, and finish off with a lime green scarf over the little dreadlock twists that conveniently hide the mangled wreckage of my left ear – let's call it Grace Kelly does Sailor Moon. This is not so much a comment on my style as a comment on my budget. I was always more of an outrageously expensive indie boutique kinda girl. But that was FL. Former Life.
"Come on, buddy," I say to Sloth. "Don't want to keep the clients waiting." Sloth gives a sharp sneeze of disapproval and extends his long downy arms. He clambers onto my back, fussing and shifting before he finally settles. I used to get impatient. But this has become an old routine for the pair of us.
It's because I haven't had my caffeine fix yet that it takes a little while for the repetitive skritching sound to penetrate – the Mongoose is pawing at the front door with a single-minded devotion.
I oblige, shunting back the double deadbolt and clicking open the padlock which is engraved with magic, supposedly designed to keep out those with a shavi for slipping through locked doors. At the first crack, the Mongoose nudges out between my ankles and trots down the passage towards the communal litter tray. It's easy to find. It's the smelliest place in the building.
"You should really get a cat-flap." Benoît is awake at last, propped up on one elbow, squinting at me from under the shade of his fingers, because the glare bouncing off Ponte Tower has shifted across to his side of the bed.
"Why?" I say, propping the door open with my foot for the Mongoose's imminent return. "You moving in?"
"Is that an invitation?"
"Don't get comfortable is all I'm saying."
"Ah, but is that all you're saying?"
"And don't get smart either."
"Don't worry, cherie na ngayi. Your bed is far too lumpy to get comfortable." Benoît stretches lazily, revealing the mapwork of scars over his shoulders, the plasticky burnt skin that runs down his throat and his chest. He only ever calls me "my love" in Lingala, which makes it easier to disregard. "You making breakfast?"
"Deliveries," I shrug.
"Anything interesting today?" He loves hearing about the things people lose.
"Set of keys. The widow ring."
"Ah, yes. The crazy lady."
"That's right," Benoît says, and repeats himself: "Crazy lady."
"Hustle, my friend. I have to get going."
Benoît pulls a face. "It's so early."
"I'm not kidding."
"All right, all right." He uncocoons himself from the bed, plucks his jeans from the floor and yanks on an old protest t-shirt inherited from Central Methodist's clothing drive.
I fish Mrs Luditsky's ring out of the plastic cup of Jik it's been soaking in overnight to get rid of the clinging eau de drain, and rinse it under a sputtering tap. Platinum with a constellation of sapphires and a narrow grey band running through the centre, only slightly scratched. Even with Sloth's help, it took three hours to find the damn thing.
As soon as I touch it, I feel the tug – the connection running away from me like a thread, stronger when I focus on it. Sloth tightens his grip on my shoulder, his claws digging into my collarbone.
"Easy, tiger," I wince. Maybe it would have been easier to have a tiger. As if any of us gets a choice.
Benoît is already dressed, the Mongoose looping impatient figure eights around his ankles.
"See you later, then?" he says, as I shoo him out the door.
"Maybe." I smile in spite of myself. But when he moves to kiss me, Sloth bats him away with a proprietary arm.
"I don't know who is worse," Benoît complains, ducking. "You, or that monkey."
"Definitely me," I say, locking the door behind him.
The blackened walls of Elysium Heights' stairwell still carry a whiff of the Undertow, like polyester burning in a microwave. The stairway is mummified in yellow police tape and a charm against evidence-tampering, as if the cops are ever going to come back and investigate. A dead zoo in Zoo City is low priority even on a good day. Most of the residents have been forced to use the fire-escape to bypass this floor. But there are faster ways to the ground. I have a talent not just for finding lost things, but shortcuts too.
I duck into number 615, abandoned ever since the fire tore through here, and scramble down through the hole in the floor that drops into 526, which has been gutted by scrap rats who ripped out the floorboards, the pipes, the fittings – anything that could be sold for a hit.
Speaking of which, there is a junkie passed out in the doorway, some dirty furry thing nested against his chest, breathing fast and shallow. My slops crunch on the brittle glitter of a broken lightbulb as I step over him. In my day we smoked crack, or mandrax if you were really trashy. I cross over the walkway that connects to Aurum Place and a functional staircase. Or not so functional. The moment I swing open the double doors to the stairwell and utter darkness, it becomes obvious where the junkie got the bulb.
"Well, isn't this romantic?"
Sloth grunts in response.
"Yeah, you say that now, but remember, I'm taking you with me if I fall," I say, stepping into the darkness.
Sloth drives me like a Zinzi motorbike, his claws clenching, left, right, down, down, down for two storeys to where the bulbs are still intact. It won't be long until they too find a new life as tik pipes, but isn't that the way of the slums? Even the stuff that's nailed down gets repurposed.
After the claustrophobia of the stairwell, it's a relief to hit the street. It's still relatively quiet this early in the morning. A municipal street-cleaning truck chugs up ahead, blasting the tarmac with a sheet of water to wash away the transgressions of the night. One of the transgressions in question dances back to avoid being sprayed, nearly stepping on the scruffy Sparrow hopping around between her high heels.
Seeing me, she pulls her denim jacket closed over her naked breasts, too quickly for me to figure out if they're hormone-induced or magic. As we pass, I can feel the filmy cling of a dozen strands of lost things from the boygirl, like brushing against the tendrils of an anemone. I try not to look. But I pick up blurred impressions anyway, like an out-of-focus photograph. I get snatches of a gold cigarette case, or maybe it's a business-card holder, a mostly empty plastic bankie of brown powder and a pair of sequinned red stilettos – real showgirl shoes, like Dorothy got back from Oz all grown up and turned burlesque stripper. Sloth tenses up automatically. I pat his arm.
"None of our business, buddy."
He's too sensitive. The problem with my particular gift, curse, call it what you like, is that everybody's lost something. Stepping out in public is like walking into a tangle of cat's cradles, like someone dished out balls of string at the lunatic asylum and instructed the inmates to tie everything to everything else. On some people, the lost strings are cobwebs, inconsequential wisps that might blow away at any moment. On others, it's like they're dragging steel cables. Finding something is all about figuring out which string to tug on.
Some lost things can't be found. Like youth, say. Or innocence. Or, sorry Mrs Luditsky, property values once the slums start encroaching. Rings, on the other hand, that's easy stuff. Also: lost keys, love letters, beloved toys, misplaced photographs and missing wills. I even found a lost room once. But I like to stick to the easy stuff, the little things. After all, the last thing of any consequence I found was a nasty drug habit. And look how that turned out.
I pause to buy a nutritious breakfast, aka a skyf from a Zimbabwean vendor rigging up the scaffolding of a pavement stall. While he lays out his crate of suckers and snacks and single smokes, his wife unpacks a trove of cheap clothing and disposable electronics from two large amaShangaan, the red-and-blue-checked bags that are ubiquitous round here. It's like they hand them out with the application for refugee status. Here's your temporary ID, here's your asylum papers, and here, don't forget your complimentary crappy woven plastic suitcase.
Sloth clicks in my ear as I light up my Remington Gold, half the price of a Stuyvesant. This city's all about the cheap knock-off.
"Oh come on. One. One cigarette. It's not like I'm going to live long enough to get emphysema." Or that emphysema isn't an attractive alternative to being sucked down by the Undertow.
Sloth doesn't respond, but I can feel his irritation in the way he shifts his weight, thumping against my back. In retaliation, I blow the smoke out the side of my mouth into his disapproving furry face. He sneezes violently.
The traffic is starting to pick up, taxis hurtling through the streets with the first consignments of commuters. I take the opportunity to do a little advertising, sticking flyers under the wipers of the parked cars already lining the street outside The Daily Truth's offices. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to invent the news.
I've got ads up in a couple of places. The local library. The supermarket, jammed between advertisements for chars with excellent references and second-hand lawnmowers. Pasted up in Hillbrow among the wallpaper of flyers advertising miracle Aids cures, cheap abortions and prophets.
LOST A SMALL ITEM OF PERSONAL VALUE?
I CAN HELP YOU FIND IT FOR A REASONABLE FEE.
NO DRUGS. NO WEAPONS. NO MISSING PERSONS.
I've resisted going mass market and posting it online. This way it's kismet, like the ads find the people they're supposed to. Like Mrs Luditsky, who summoned me to her Killarney apartment Saturday morning.
To the old lady's credit, she didn't flinch when she saw Sloth draped across my shoulders.
"You can only be the girl from the ad. Well, come in. Have a cup of tea." She pressed a cup of greasy-looking Earl Grey into my hands without waiting for a response and bustled away through her dingy hallway to an equally dingy lounge.
The apartment had been Art Deco in a former lifetime, but it had been subjected to one ill-conceived refurbishment too many. But then, so had Mrs Luditsky. Her skin had the transparent shine of glycerine soap, and her eyes bulged ever so slightly, possibly from the effort of trying to emote when every associated muscle had been pumped full of botulinum or lasered into submission. Her thinning orange hair was gelled into a hard pompadour, like the crust on crème brûlée.
The tea tasted like stale horse piss drained through a homeless guy's sock, but I drank it anyway, if only because Sloth hissed at me when I tried to turf it surreptitiously into the exotic plastic orchid next to the couch.
Mrs Luditsky launched straight in. "It's my ring. There was an armed robbery at the mall yesterday and–"
I cut in: "If your ring was stolen, that's out of my jurisdiction. It's a whole different genre of magic."