A GSP release from Author of the Week: Jim Woods.
Ever wish you could call back a promise you’ve made? David Stone, American, has adopted South Africa as his home and Marjie van der Leun as his lover. It’s an on-again, off-again affair, but during one of the on-again stages, David made a commitment which would come back to haunt him. In a reckless moment, David said he would kill for her. Now Marjie wants to call in that favor.
The arrangement involves a lot of money and once David is “in for a penny, he is in for a pound,” as the saying goes.
The plot thickens, Marjie is prosecuted for the murder and David thinks he has gotten away . . . until . . .
David Stone seldom went to sleep at night without acknowledging he was perhaps the most fortunate bachelor on Earth. After college in California, he practically had fallen into his job, a well-paid management position, allowing him to return to the country of his birth, South Africa, a locale of which he held scant actual memory. Others’ recollections passed on to him, combined with old photographs, triggered false memories of a father he had never known. He knew now his father had been a professional hunter, a safari operator. It was rare for an American to hold such a position in this country and David treated the knowledge as a birthright of near royalty for himself. David had been on safari several times, enjoyed an impressive salary and social position, and all the female attention that money could buy. Life indeed was good; David Stone had everything to live for.
David stirred and groaned at the first summons from the distant kitchen telephone. At the second signal he tossed aside the light comforter and swung his long frame upright, legs dangling over the side of the king-size bed. By the third insistent chirp, he was awake enough to curse his boss in California, who refused to authorize the trivial expense of adding a second instrument for the bedroom of the company-leased condominium in Durban.
Alex Becker, absentee owner of PCI (Pty) Ltd, in addition to being cheap about minor expenses, also demanded the full attention of any employee who happened to be the object of his thoughts at any particular time. He reasoned with the nine-hour time differential between the United States west coast and South Africa, a call placed to South Africa during his local business hours stood a good chance of finding his area manager in bed instead of in the office or out on the road. He wouldn’t tolerate sleep-befuddled answers to his questions, so his scheme was to ensure David always had to be sufficiently awake to find the telephone at the other end of the house, and therefore be alert enough to reel off all the correct responses.
David once again resolved to put in the additional phone at his own expense, but knew that he wouldn’t, because Alex would raise Holy Hell about it when he commandeered the guest bedroom on his next unannounced visit. As much as he enjoyed thinking about crossing Alex, he knew that he would not. His position as almost total controller of the South Africa office provided him a very comfortable, even lavish, lifestyle he wouldn’t jeopardize. He was more or less fully functional when he snatched up the handset.
“Private Computers International,” he puffed into the instrument. “This is David Stone.”
The call had to be from Alex this time of night, David was certain, and his absentee employer demanded formal business telephone protocol. A clerk from the office who stayed late with David one evening, then on until morning, had been helpful in answering the telephone in order to let David continue his recovering slumber. Her pleasant and sensual hallo sounded anything but businesslike to Alex, and she was instantly dismissed from her job and David came perilously close to being yanked back to California. Since then, David’s guests were warned away from taking incoming calls and he was careful always to be professional on the telephone, no matter what the time of day or night.
“Dave? This is Marjie.”
The voice jolted him. She didn’t have to say Marjie Who. David remembered Marjie. When he first took the assignment in South Africa three years before, he’d taken stock of the local talent and identified Marjie as a sexy airhead. He was only half-right; she was sexy. She also was a very smart engineer who’d developed the power module allowing the PCI computer to work on the peculiar 50-cycle, 230-volt electricity produced and distributed by South Africa’s national electric power company, Eskom. Marjie worked for Eskom but, thanks to some expensive and persuasive encouragement from Alex Becker, her efforts had been instrumental in opening the Southern African market to PCI immediately after the post-apartheid government took over in 1994, when foreign investment in the country once again became an attractive proposition. PCI was able to beat the competition to the marketplace by several months, and still held onto that advantage.
David had been the recipient of a Masters fellowship sponsored by PCI, and his brilliant thesis on marketing opportunities in Third World countries won him the managerial assignment with PCI in South Africa. PCI joined with Eskom in a politically-motivated venture to bring technology to the underdeveloped nations of sub-Saharan Africa. Thereafter, at the local implementation level, David and Alex together coordinated closely with Marjie, a working threesome by day and, after hours, one or the other of them a playful pair with Margie, according to her fancy.
Marjie permitted both PCI-exec Alex and second-in-command David to court her, but she’d been promoted to an assignment to electrify the rural northern Transvaal a couple of years ago, and David had lost contact with her. Marjie’s departure apparently had been Alex’s reason for the abrupt decision to wrap up his personal control over the South Africa operation, ceremoniously turning it over to David and immediately returning to the company’s home base in California. Now Marjie was back in David’s life, and his groin ached pleasantly in remembrance of their times together . . . and Alex was not hovering nearby to claim a share of her.
“Marjie! How’ve you been? Where are you? What’s going on with you?” He wanted to say something clever and smooth, but felt tongue-tied and angry with himself because he couldn’t control his thoughts or his voice. What kind of schoolboy must she think I am? he wondered, but Marjie cut in with her assurances of how much she missed him. She explained that she had gone back to the family home in Cape Town for a while after her project in the north was finished. She had just returned to her own home in Pietersburg and wanted, no needed, to see him.
“Davie, do you remember when you . . .” she struggled for the words, “offered to eind die lewe of someone for me if I ever needed it? Well, I need to talk to you about that now. There’s twenty thousand in it for you. Can you come?”
Wheeew, he blew silently, and was quiet for just an instant too long. Marjie was necessarily fluent in English as the language of commerce and technology in South Africa as in most of the rest of the world, but in this very personal turmoil she reverted to her traditional language. She had used the Afrikaans, end the life. Murder someone!
“Daaave,” she came back impatiently, “didn’t you mean it?”
“Yes, I meant it,” he struggled to assure her. He’d lost her once. Now with the prospect of having her back, he wasn’t about to give her up again over some silly notion she harbored about killing someone. He had spent only a few weeks collectively in the United States over the past three years of being posted in South Africa and had become completely at ease with the local currency, rands. However, he still converted to dollars to know what prices were in real money. Twenty thousand rands was roughly five thousand dollars. “I can take care of that for you, but it’ll cost fifty thousand. Haven’t you heard about inflation?”
“Done!” she exulted. “I would have given you a hundred!”
Hey, she’s serious! What am I letting myself in for? “Just who am I supposed to kill?”
“I don’t want to talk about this kind of business on the phone. Let’s meet at the Carlton. I’ll drive in and get a suite where we can talk in private. Can you fly up tonight?”
Durban—almost six hundred kilometers from Johannesburg, he computed quickly; Margie’s base in Pietersburg about half that. “No, I’ll drive up in the morning. In fact, I’ll leave in three or four hours and be there in the early afternoon. I’ll get the hotel and call you at home and we can meet there later that evening. What’s your phone?”
Now it was her turn to hesitate. Clearly she wanted to control the venue, but eventually she gave her grudging approval to the plan. She stumbled over the telephone number as though having difficulty remembering it, then blurted out the four digits. As David wrote them down on his phone-side pad, he automatically added the area prefix for Pietersburg. “I’ll ring you up from the city,” he said hoarsely, and hung up.
No, he thought, I’ll ring you up right now! Then, halfway through dialing he slammed down the receiver. Sprinting to the bedroom, he pulled on the navy-blue sweatpants he’d laid out in preparation for his early-morning roadwork regimen—eight kilometers at a dedicated runner’s measured pace designed to cover the distance in an easy half-hour—then struggled into the matching pullover top emblazoned with Santa Clara in yellow script across the chest, and Broncos on the back He snatched his keys, change and handkerchief from the dresser-top valet and jammed them into the muff pocket, then pulled on his tackies, stuffed the hanging laces into the shoes against his bare feet and rushed to the carport. The Mercedes responded to the turn of the key and squealed down the drive, then onto the street that would take him over to Windemere Plaza and the public phone.
If I’m right, he thought, she will have to go to the post office to find a coin phone in Pietersburg. Having driven extensively over the past three years through the sparsely settled Transvaal Province in presenting PCI’s computer system to potential clients—the exception to spotty populations that characterized the rural province being the Johannesburg/Pretoria megaplex—he knew that the post offices in the smaller towns were the only places to find public telephones this time of night, and generally they were located in the seedier parts of downtown. David reasoned that Marjie would have to drive several minutes, perhaps even a quarter of an hour or more, to get from the upscale Ster Park neighborhood where she lived to the only post office in Pietersburg, and her return trip might give him enough time to verify she did not call from her personal telephone. As he wheeled into the plaza parking lot, he spied the lighted phone pod and was relieved to note that it was not in use. Another problem with the public telephones, as he and all the whites were aware, was the instruments were normally tied up by the blacks who did not have phones at home; they monopolized them for hours. This time of early morning, even the street-blacks were not hanging around the telephone. His first thought, since the cubicle was unoccupied, was he would find only the broken and frayed, dangling cable but he was relieved again when he found the instrument, to be in working order.
Using his crisp, white handkerchief, he dry-sanitized the assumed-to-be-contaminated receiver and mouthpiece with a couple of determined rubs, and then tossed the streaked cloth in the nearby wire trash bin. He dropped a two-rand piece in the coin slot and determinedly punched-in the regional code for Pietersburg and then the home number Marjie had given him. It rang on the other end three times before an answering machine responded in her purring voice. Okay, he reasoned, she did not call from her home. She’s making sure, as I suspected, no record of the call from her telephone could ever be traced to my number. I’ll have to be just as careful from my end.
The leisurely drive through the few blocks to his neighborhood gave him time to muse over just how he would stay a step ahead of the beautiful lady Marjie while also getting her into his bed. Back at the condominium, he dropped into that friendless bed still fully clothed, with Marjie, not at all so encumbered, the prime focus of his schemes and fantasies.
Fighting to clear his head of drowsiness just half an hour ago, he found now he could not sleep. He stripped off the jogging clothes, ran the shower hot while he shaved, then lunged into the revitalizing spray and steam. In the kitchen, he switched the automatic coffee pot from his normal wake-up time to ON, and watched gratefully as the life-giving drip started almost instantly. Then he wet-tracked across the gray stone-textured tile to the bedroom. As he draped the towel across a maroon-upholstered chair he wondered, what does one wear when negotiating a hit contract?
After two cups of coffee, brewed to his still American taste—South Africa offered many culinary pleasures, but the provincials simply could not make decent coffee—and half a box of Baker’s Tennis Biscuits, one of those off-the-shelf culinary pleasures—he dressed for the drive to Johannesburg.