My Brother’s Keeper
Johannesburg – April 2001
Sipho stood outside the property. He looked up at the surrounding wall, and at the five strands of electrified wire that topped it. Rich people lived behind it, that was for sure. They could afford real brick and plaster, a solid structure that loomed high above his head. The paint looked lurid pink in the glow of the up-lights set at intervals along its base. Salmon-coloured, they called it.
Sipho had never tasted salmon. Where he came from the only fish they ate was canned sardines or pilchards, both salty, stinking and grey in colour. In Sipho’s neighbourhood, some people put up precast walls to protect their property. As time passed, the concrete panels started leaning drunkenly to one side, but whether they were new or old, it was simple enough to remove a section from the bottom and wriggle underneath.
Sipho could have, but he didn’t. The gang never broke into properties in their own neighbourhood. Vusi, his partner, said it was because it was too easy to be recognised and too difficult to find anything worth taking. But Sipho knew it was because they were loyal to their own people.
This side of Johannesburg was different. The rich people had high walls and electrified fences because they needed them. They needed to protect their plasma-screen TVs and big computers, their hi-fi systems and gold jewellery, their cash and their safes. And their other safes. Always ask where the other safe is. Jam the gun into the woman’s throat, and ask the man. Vusi had told him that. He’d said he’d learned it a while back, from somebody who’d been in prison, and he’d winked at Sipho, whispering that he wished he’d known it before. It had made him a lot of money since then.
Headlights shone in the distance and Sipho flattened himself against a tree trunk as the beams became brighter and the shadows grew sharp, swinging round on the pink-painted wall as the car passed by.
Sipho waited until his eyes readjusted to the dark. The tree had helped him once. It had concealed him from the passing car. Now it would help him again.
He reached up and grabbed the closest branch, curling his fingers around the crusty bark. It crumbled in his grasp. Splinters and dust rained down on his upturned face in a blinding shower.
Sipho blinked them away through eyes flooded with tears. He grasped the branch with his other hand and swung himself up into the tree, scrabbling for purchase, the rustle of the leaves loud in the still night. A splinter ran under his nail, a tiny dagger of agony that pierced the quick of his finger. He wondered if this was a bad omen, a sign that the tree did not want him in its branches.
Before each job he visited a sangoma. On his last visit the toothless man had thrown the bones and given him muti to make him strong. When he’d peered at the bones, he’d told Sipho to beware of bad omens. Worried, Sipho had asked the man how he would know if they appeared.
The sangoma had smiled, a gummy grin. ‘You will know,’ he’d said.
Well, now he would hurry. He’d get out of the tree as fast as he could. One splinter was not a sign of disaster, was it?
Breathing hard, he crawled out onto an upper branch, keeping low for balance, leaves trembling around him, the wood bending and bobbing as the branch narrowed.
Sipho looked down. He was directly above the wall. He could see the electric fence underneath him, the smooth green of the lawn beyond. The owner had security lights positioned around the inner perimeter of the wall. Sipho knew this would make it easy to spot any intruders who triggered the fence alarm.
But he would trigger no alarms. Sipho was like a cat. Small, light and agile. He could squeeze through the smallest of gaps, crawl along the flimsiest of supports. It was why he had this job. This part of every operation succeeded because of him.
Another shuffle forward along the swaying branch. He was clear of the wall. Now all he needed to do was grasp the wood and swing downwards, legs dangling and arms outstretched, choosing the spot for his landing, knees ready to absorb the impact of the drop to the ground.
A sharp cracking sound made his heart accelerate in an instant. Before he had time to think, Sipho’s world suddenly tilted downwards. He grabbed the branch tighter in panic but it didn’t stop his fall. He tumbled towards the lawn in a noisy rustle of leaves.
Sipho hit the ground fast and hard, too fast. Although he instinctively rolled to break his fall, the breath was knocked out of him and his vision exploded. The branch that had snapped and fallen with him clawed his face and he stifled a shriek of pain.
He sat up, the whirling stars in his head slowly dissipating, leaving only the real stars that shone down at him from the quiet night sky.
He touched his cheek and felt something sticky. His fingers came away bloody and trembling. He could see his skin crimson-stained in the glow of the security up-light behind him, and he pressed the sleeve of his black jacket carefully against the wound. His head pounded. His right shoulder throbbed. Apart from that, he’d been lucky. He didn’t think he’d broken any bones.
He felt a light touch on his hair and he whipped his head sideways. He’d forgotten all about the house. Had somebody been alerted? Were they standing behind him with a gun ready?
The movement dislodged a leafy twig that had fallen on his head. Sipho took a deep breath, feeling sweat soak through his jacket. A trickle of perspiration ran down his temple and he brushed it away with his bloody sleeve.
The house looked quiet. High, pale walls and big windows. The windows were still dark. Sipho studied the glass door behind the upstairs balcony. If it opened, he was in big trouble. Shaking more sweat away, he turned to the security light bolted to the base of the wall behind him. Prising open the cover, he yanked the bulb out. Darkness smothered him like a blanket. Now, if the people looked out, they wouldn’t notice his shadow against the pink wall. They would see that a light was missing, but they wouldn’t see him clearly enough to shoot him.
He craned his neck and looked back up at the fence.
The electric wires shimmered, undamaged and untouched. The branch had broken just inside the wall, when he was clear of the fence. He could see pale, splintered wood exposed like a sheared tooth in a dark hole of a mouth.
He’d been very lucky.
Sipho watched the house for another minute. Better to be patient than to be caught. But no alarms went off. He saw no movement, heard nothing. Only the trill of crickets and the slow scudding of a cloud across the starry sky.
He scrambled to his feet, aware now of new aches in his muscles and a sharp pain in his shoulder. Hugging the wall, he crept towards the gate, his footsteps soundless on the yielding cover of grass. With each step, his confidence returned. By the time he reached the tall metal gate, despite the sangoma’s warning, he felt almost invulnerable.
He fumbled in the pouch around his waist and produced a screwdriver, its shaft wrapped in a dirty cloth to muffle noise. Two hard jerks and the padlock that secured the gate’s motor gave way with a reluctant crack.
He prised the box open and pushed the internal lever down. Now the gate could be manually operated. He eased it open, feeling the heavy structure glide over its well-oiled runners.
Three dark-clad figures slipped inside. Tall Vusi led the way and Sipho saw the gleam of the gun in his hand. The Botopela twins followed him, carrying the heavier tools of their trade – a long crowbar, bolt cutters, a saw with a wickedly jagged blade.
Sipho pushed the gate closed behind them and hurried after the trio. They strode boldly towards the house in the early-morning dark. As always, he felt a surge of pride at his ability. Even with a branch breaking, he had been quiet.
But now a twinge of dread arose swiftly. Sipho liked to think he was the leader in these operations. He was clever, agile and fast. He watched the houses beforehand, chose the ones he thought would be good targets. He looked so innocent as he walked the streets where the rich people lived. He was the one who got in and made it possible for the others to follow.
But the truth was that Vusi was bigger, heavier, ten years older and far more dangerous. Vusi controlled the Botopela twins. And Vusi carried the gun.
This time, things had gone differently. Sipho hadn’t been allowed to choose the house he wanted. Vusi had pointed the place out to him as they’d driven past on a rainy afternoon, a few days before.
‘That one,’ he had said. ‘Get us inside that one. I’ll tell you when we need to do the job.’
Sipho had listened. And he had got them inside.
‘No shooting,’ he hissed, trotting ahead of the twins and drawing level with Vusi.
The man ignored him. He beckoned the twins forward. Sipho knew they would need to work quickly now to gain access before the sleeping residents woke. They would have no time to listen to him.
Pressed against the front wall of the house, the noise of rending metal and splintering wood loud in his ears, Sipho remembered the promise he’d made to himself as he’d stood on the greasy animal hide in the sangoma’s lair.
‘I will not kill. I will come home safe.’
His thoughts were interrupted by the low chuckle of Ephraim, the firstborn Botopela twin.
‘Woman here,’ he whispered, and chuckled again.
Sipho gritted his teeth. Vusi had said the man could smell a female as soon as he was inside a house. Sipho didn’t know if that was true. But he knew that even Vusi had difficulty keeping Ephraim under control when they spent time in the presence of a woman.
Peering into the house as the men entered, Sipho realised Ephraim hadn’t needed any special powers to know a woman lived there. The first thing he saw was a pair of high-heeled black sandals lying, as if carelessly taken off, on the thick, white rug. Dark brown leather sofas faced the biggest television that Sipho had ever seen. On one of the sofas was a bright blue handbag decorated with beads that glimmered faintly in the glow from the outside lights.
Sipho took another step forward, feeling his shoes sink into the soft sheepskin rug, gazing wide-eyed at the polished tables, the brass screen in front of the fireplace, the hi-fi system in the corner, silent now, but with a green light flashing on the display. It was flanked by two speakers almost as tall as he was.
The men crossed the room and headed for the staircase. Before they went upstairs, Vusi turned round and saw that Sipho was still there.
‘Outside,’ he hissed, and jabbed a finger at the handbag.
Sipho understood. Vusi didn’t want the owners of the house to see him. He was not allowed to help until the men had blindfolded them.
‘It’s because you’re so small,’ Vusi had told him disparagingly. ‘How can they be afraid if they think they are being robbed by a child?’
Annoyed, Sipho had drawn himself to his full height, putting him at eye level with Vusi’s armpit.
‘I am not a child,’ he’d said. ‘I am fifteen years old.’
Vusi had shrugged and turned away. Thinking about his words afterwards, Sipho realised that his height wasn’t the real reason they used him. It was so that the residents wouldn’t report his description to the police, so that nobody would be suspicious of the ‘small boy’ innocently playing soccer in their street.
His stomach churning with anxiety, Sipho picked up the handbag from the leather seat and retreated to the front door. A whiff of sweetness came from the bag and Sipho breathed in the delicate scent, more lovely than the most beautiful flowers he could imagine.
The perfume calmed him, and the bag’s strap felt soft in his hand. This job would go fine, he knew it would. These people would have lots of cash, diamonds and expensive jewellery in their safe. And in their other safe. Vusi would share the money out and Sipho would have enough to pay for new clothes, housing and school fees for his little brother, because before she died, his mother had made him promise that he would keep the younger boy in school.
If these people were really rich and the Botopela twins were not too greedy, then perhaps – Sipho stole another glance at the amazing interior of the house – perhaps, once his brother’s schooling was paid for and there was food in the cupboard, there would be money left over for him to buy a big television and a leather chair to sit and watch it in.
Abruptly, his dreams were shattered as a woman’s high scream pierced the night.
Sipho dug his fingers into the strap of the handbag. His heart pounded and his eyes and mouth flew open as wide as if he had screamed himself. He braced himself to run, although he didn’t know where. Should he hurry upstairs and try to stop what he feared was happening? Or should he escape from the house and abandon his friends?
As he stood on legs trembling with fear, three gunshots split the air, their explosions loud and terrible. Thwack, thwack, thwack, in perfect time with the frantic pounding of his heart.
Sipho’s hands turned icy cold and the bag slipped out of his grasp, falling soundlessly onto the rug.
What had they done? What had gone wrong?
He remembered his breathless whisper. ‘No shooting.’ He understood that well. ‘No shooting means no police.’ But last time he’d said those words, Vusi had turned around with a strange expression on his face.
‘No witnesses mean no arrests,’ he’d said.
The gang must have put a new tactic into place. Without telling him, because they knew if they’d told him beforehand, he wouldn’t have helped them gain entry to the house they wanted to rob. He wouldn’t have climbed the tree and jumped the wall and let the others in.
Sipho tried to make his trembling legs obey him, to turn and run away. Instead he found himself walking across the lounge and then silently, step by careful step, up the tiled flight of stairs. This was his last job, he knew that for sure. He couldn’t do this again. He didn’t want to see what was in the bedroom. But he needed to know.
Arriving at the top of the stairs, in an instant he realised how wrong he’d been.
Three shots, three bodies.
Vusi and the Botopela twins lay sprawled on the bedroom floor. Blood soaked their clothes and was pooling on the pale tiles.
A red-headed woman lay in bed, wide-eyed, clutching a sheet around her body. When she saw him, she started screaming again.
The sound diverted the attention of the man crouched on the floor beside Ephraim. He dropped the older twin’s hand and scrambled to his feet. Sipho realised he must have been checking for a pulse.
The man stared at him for a moment with calm blue eyes. His fair hair was cropped close to his head like an army haircut and he was wearing a pair of dull, khaki-coloured shorts. He raised his arm and Sipho realised how big and strong the man was, his pale skin defining taut, bulging muscles.
Then, as he saw the dull, steely gleam of the gun the man held, Sipho’s instincts finally kicked in. He leaped out of the bedroom and flung himself down the stairs, running as fast as he could, his breath burning in his chest. Running for his life.
He’d just reached the bottom of the stairs when the man punched him. He felt a vicious blow in his back that made him stagger, then another that sent him sprawling to the floor at the base of the television set, grazed cheek against the carpet.
He hadn’t expected the man to be so quick on his feet. How had he caught up with him? With Sipho, who could run as fast as the wind? And why was he so tired? He knew he should climb to his feet and run again, out of the door and out of the house, but he couldn’t move. His arms and legs felt weak and strangely heavy and the rug was soft, so soft. He needed to rest.
‘Bad omens. You will know.’
The sangoma’s words echoed in Sipho’s mind. He lay crumpled on the floor, staring up at the giant television, so tall and wide it filled his view until, slowly, everything grew dark.