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Pretoria, 31 July 1981
What Captain Trevor Watson wanted right now, more than anything in the universe, was to get laid. Go to a Ladies’ Bar – stupid how South African law prohibited women from entering any other kind of drinking establishment – chat up a chick, get into her panties, stifle his loneliness for a few hours.
Dream on. Most girls saved it for the wedding night, the way their mothers and grandmothers before them had, totally oblivious of the sex revolution sweeping through the rest of the world. But he could still hope, right? It was a bleak Friday evening, its dry cold drilling straight into the bone marrow, the way only a Transvaal winter chill could. Nothing on TV, no snooker invitations, and tickets to Raiders of the Lost Ark already sold out in every one of the three Pretoria theatres.
Only now, he had a corpse to deal with. A corpse – and a witness. Or was it a suspect? Christ, Watson hoped it was a suspect. With luck, he’d wrap this case in two hours, leave Jones with the paperwork, and get his arse to the bar. The pickings would be slimmer as the clock approached midnight, but also more desperate, easier to seduce. After a full-on week in the Murder and Robbery squad, he was done with hard work.
He eyed the pale-green folder on his desk.
Du Plessis had buggered off to Zimbabwe for a funeral, and left Watson to finish the investigation.
He’d rather gouge his eyes out than read another report. “Jones?”
“Tell me about the case.”
“A seventeen-year old white male, sir. Hans Swanepoel. A prefect at Pretoria Boys High School. Champion butterfly and backstroke swimmer. Academic overachiever. A bit of a loner, reading between the lines, an Afrikaans boy in an English school, but nothing on his record to indicate any trouble. Shot dead with a .38 special Cobra. Took four bullets to the chest. Distance: around a metre.”
Watson raised his hand palm out, like a stop sign. Four bullets. Unusual. “How accurate?”
“The doc can’t be certain of the order, but we have one bullet nicking the breastbone to the right, one going through the left nipple,” Jones winced as he said it, “and exiting under the left armpit, the other two in the heart.”
Not a very experienced shooter, then. “Any luck with the gun?”
“Didn’t find it.”
“What about the witness?”
“Suspect, sir, according to Captain Du Plessis. Her name is Claudia Aberdeen. Also seventeen.”
“Goes to the same school, does she?”
Jones gave him a blank face, which was the private’s way of masking confusion. “Sir? She can’t―”
“Kidding, Jones. Boys High – it’s in the name.”
“Yes, sir. Claudia goes to the Glen High. A co-ed school. She attended extra-curricular electronics classes with the victim.”
“Nobody stands out. He sat together with his chess club at lunch. Between swimming, chess, electronics, and homework, he probably didn’t have a lot of time to socialise outside of school.”
“Right. So what happened?”
“On Wednesday 29 July, Prince Charles got married to Lady Diana Spencer.”
Watson raised his eyebrow.
“It’s connected, sir. You know how the TV broadcasted the footage from the ceremony on Wednesday night? Claudia and Hans watched it together with his family at his house. Hans then walked Claudia back to hers, said hello to her parents, and set out on his journey back home.”
“Yes, sir. He never made it back. His body was discovered the next morning – that’s yesterday – by a domestic maid on her way to work. It was lying in the agapanthus border of another house, about three hundred metres from the Aberdeens’.”
“Didn’t his parents raise the alarm when he failed to return home?”
“His father’s away on a business trip. His mother put his younger sisters to bed after the TV transmission, then fell asleep reading them a bedtime story. Didn’t wake up until after midnight, went to bed assuming Hans was back in his room.”
Had the whole world watched the bloody royal wedding apart from him? The last time Watson had switched on the TV was when McEnroe won Wimbledon a week earlier.
“We spoke to the maid who found the body?”
“Yes, sir. She’s scared shi― out of her mind. Thinks we’re going to pin this on her.”
No bloody chance, Watson thought. Tempting as it was to point a finger and let the machine of injustice steamroll ahead, the case of the-domestic-servant-did-it-in-the-agapanthus-with-a-gun simply didn’t wash. Inter-racial violence hardly ever happened in Pretoria’s South-East suburbs. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required all black South Africans to carry ID documents at all times, and those found in a white neighbourhood without a good reason were arrested on the spot.
Which made the case both easier and more difficult. Easier, because the killer was probably somebody within the boy’s social circle. More difficult, because Watson would not be thanked for putting a school kid in jail.
“What does Du Plessis make of it?”
Jones perked up. “His handwriting could rival a medic’s, sir, but he did dedicate one whole sheet to write two words in capital letters, then underline them.”
Watson raised his eyebrows.
“Sir, the words are STATUTORY RAPE.”
“And the girl is?”
“Seventeen. Of legal age.”
“Let’s go talk to this Claudia,” Watson said. “Find out why Du Plessis is so keen to throw her in jail.”
Miss Claudia Aberdeen lived with her parents and siblings in Silver Oak Street, a posh address in a posh suburb of Waterkloof. The street was lined with tall jacaranda trees – not oak trees as the name might suggest – and Watson knew that, come October, purple flowers would block out the sky above and carpet the kerbs below. On this last day of July, though, all he could see were bare branches in pools of yellow streetlamps. Six o’clock in the evening and it was already dark.
“What plans went to the crapper for you tonight, Jones?” Misery loves company. Perhaps Jones had to throw away Raiders tickets, or cancel dinner with his girlfriend’s family, or postpone a weekend in Sun City where gambling machines and blue movies were legal.
“No plans, sir.”
Watson drove slowly, checking house numbers. “On a Friday night?” Hey, did Jones actually have a girlfriend? He looked too young, somehow, too soft.
“Yes, sir. I mean, no plans, sir.” The awkward silence lasted until Jones exclaimed,
“Here’s where the body was found.”
Watson drew to a halt, killed the headlights. Most gardens in this suburb had either side fences or hedges to demarcate the boundary lines between the properties, but no front fences to clash with the landscaped perfections of the front yards.
The garden where Hans Swanepoel had died was no exception, with a white picket fence running to the left and the right of it, and presumably at the back, but nothing in front bar a mass of tall flowering plants, sturdy enough to survive the cruel climate.
“Did the house owners hear the shots?”
“Yes, sir. They thought, in retrospect, that they may have heard something around ten o’clock, but the house is far away from the street, and all the windows were covered with heavy drapes against the cold. Do you want to interview them, Captain?”
They got into the car and rolled forward three hundred and fifty metres, until they were parallel with the Aberdeen property. A few islands of complicated rockeries lined the street side of the garden, with a flat-stone path meandering to the front door. A flat-stone driveway led straight to a four-door garage, connected to the main house by an enclosed walkway.
The lady of the house answered the door, a petite blonde with creamy skin and lips so perfect that Watson felt a stab. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, a Sunday school memory whispered to him. He grimaced, remembering how often he had done just that. And more than covet. He had followed through. Never regretted it.
“I’ll get my husband,” the blonde said before either policeman could greet her.
She led them through the soft pale of foyer to the lounge, the fabric of her dress draping around her backside.
“Bertie? For you,” she said before withdrawing.
“Whisky, gentlemen?” Bertie Aberdeen suggested as soon as they sat down. “Brandy? Gin and tonic?”
Watson and Jones shook their heads in unison.
“Come on, don’t let me drink alone on a Friday night.”
“How about you have the whisky, Mr Aberdeen, while the private and I drink its companion? Soda on the rocks?”
“I mix my whisky with Coke, but I can get you a soda―”
Watson did a mental eye-roll. No whisky, not even the cheapest blend, was bad enough to dilute it with Coca Cola. “Coke will be splendid, thank you,” he said.
Icy glass in hand, he took Mr Aberdeen through the events of Wednesday evening. Mr and Mrs Aberdeen, it turned out, also watched the royal wedding together.
“Not that I bloody care about the monarchy,” Aberdeen raised his own glass and took a large sip. “I just wanted to please the wife. She adores that Lady Diana. Plus, weddings always put her in an amorous mood, if you know what I mean.” He winked. Actually winked.
Did this caricature of a man expect congratulations? Questions that would allow him to boast about his performance? Watson remembered Mrs Aberdeen’s tight dress and bit down on his envy.
“We know what you mean, sir. Did you see the boy that night? Hans Swanepoel?”
“He walked Claudia to the front door. Said goodnight to her, well and proper. Didn’t stay for opsitkers.”
Watson’s Afrikaans was far from perfect, but he knew Aberdeen was referring to the old courting tradition, in which a candle would be lit at the beginning of the visit, and when it burned out, the suitor had to leave. Parents who disapproved of the suitor would provide a really short candle. Obviously.
“And had he stayed, how tall a candle would you have offered?”
For an instant, a grimace tightened Aberdeen’s lips, only to be obliterated by the whisky glass. “Well, Captain, you know how it is. Seventeen-year-old boys … do you have a daughter?”
Watson confessed that he didn’t. Asked about the timing.
“I didn’t look at the clock when they arrived, but it takes about twenty minutes to walk from the Swanepoels to here.”
“And the wedding broadcast finished?”
“Nine o’clock,” Jones supplied.
“So around nine thirty then?” Watson confirmed.
“Give or take.”
“You didn’t offer to drive Hans home?”
Aberdeen rocked his now empty whisky glass between his fingers. “Wife and I had a few drops while we watched TV. I know the law’s lenient about drinking and driving, but to tell you the truth, I felt a bit sleepy.”
Whisky combined with sex would do that to a man, Watson thought. Enough whisky would also make him a lousy shot, even from a distance of one metre.
Aloud he said, “We’d like to talk to Claudia now, please.”
Aberdeen’s face hardened. Before he could protest, however, his wife materialised in the doorway. “I really don’t think there is a need―”
“This is a police investigation, ma’am.”
“So?” Hard. Protective. Like a leopardess with her cubs.
He resorted to the cliché borrowed from the silver screen. “So we can interview her here. Or take her downtown if you prefer.”
The leopardess shot him a look. There were claws and teeth in that look. Probably the promise of blood to be spilled, too.
“In that case, I insist on staying while you interview her.”
“Again, ma’am, I’m sorry. We need to see Claudia alone.”
“She’s still a child.”
“She’s seventeen, Mrs Aberdeen.” Old enough to have consensual sex, he thought. And if she had been a boy, old enough to go to the army and die defending South Africa from communists.
Claudia Aberdeen was blonde and petite like her mother, but she lacked that certain something that made men like Watson stand up to attention. Pretty enough, but too unaware of her own charm, too innocent. Her eyes were puffed up and red. She shuffled into the lounge like a very old woman.
“We’re sorry for your loss,” Jones said. It was the first time he’d taken the lead in an interview, ever, and Watson sat up with surprise. Then again, Claudia was – what – only three or four years younger than Jones. How old was Jones? Watson made a mental note to ask.
“I – Hans was just a friend.” Claudia’s shoulders hunched, as though shielding her form a gust of cold air. “We were just friends,” she repeated. “We watched the royal wedding together, but that was all. Didn’t Lady Diana look like a fairy-tale princess in that tiara? The whole wedding was like a fairy-tale. She must be so happy! She’s married to the most eligible bachelor in the world.”
The lady doth protest too much, Watson thought. Just friends, my arse.
Jones walked to the door separating the lounge from the foyer, and pulled it shut. Next he switched on the hi-fi column. A record started spinning, and Jones manoeuvred the arm of the record player. Watson watched the needle sink into the black grooves.
Now the night has gone, now the night has gone away, crooned a male voice. Watson remembered that the pop group was called Air Supply. Doesn’t seem that long, we hardly had two words to say.
“So what really happened that night?” Jones suddenly sounded like a mixture of a best friend and a forgiving priest.
Claudia Aberdeen’s eyes glittered. “He told me,” her mouth widened and turned downwards, “he told me that he loved me.” The next few words disappeared into her muffled sobs. She gulped, drew a few deep breaths. “Now I’ll never get married. I’ll never be as happy as Lady Di.”
“So, to recap,” Watson said on the way back to the police station. He’d let Jones take the wheel this time. The boy had earned it after the way he’d extracted the truth from the tearful teenager. “Claudia is all gaga over the royal wedding. Hans whispers a lot of sweet nothings to her, about two hearts beating as one, or some such nonsense―”
“Two hearts beating as one is Lionel Richie,” Jones supplied. “His latest song, Endless Love. A duet with―”
“Yes, yes. Hans had the whole fairy-tale wedding, plus the twenty minutes it takes to walk from his house to hers, to spin the soulmates line and to promise eternal love―”
“Very good. Endless. They do it in the garage, in her dad’s precious Dodge, imported all the way from the USA. Beige leather seats, Jones, think about that. Your first time on beige leather. Must be pretty something.”
Jones blushed all the way to the tips of his ears. “Sir, if I may. The first time is always special, beige leather or no.”
Watson could think of several examples when the first time wouldn’t be so special. Chose not to share. “True,” he replied instead. “So imagine her dismay when the dirty deed is done, and it’s all bam-wham-thank-you-ma’am. Hans zips up his jeans. Claudia asks him to set the wedding date. And then Hans blackmails her. Tells her never to mention what happened or he’d have her arrested. Basically, pulls the old statutory rape trick.”
According to the outdated letter of the law, the age of consent was sixteen for girls, but eighteen for boys – to cover homosexual sex without actually mentioning homosexual sex, in accordance with Victorian traditions. This resulted in two ironic twists. First, that seventeen was old enough to play soldiers, but not old enough to play hide-the-salami. And second, that a seventeen-year-old girl having sex with a seventeen-year-old boy was technically guilty of statutory rape. She’d never get prosecuted, of course, and any boy reporting such a crime would be laughed out of the police station, but Claudia had no way of knowing that.
“Captain. Do you think Claudia … did she … the gun…”
“Relax, Jones. Did you see how cut up she was? She’s really grieving for that scumbag, and there’s not a shred of guilt in her tears. Her father, on the other hand… Picture this, Jones. Aberdeen finishes ‘paying attention’ to his wife, and goes to the lounge to wait up for his daughter. What father wouldn’t? And notice how he avoided telling us what time Claudia got home? He didn’t want us to wonder what happened to the half an hour they spent in the Dodge.” Bloody impressive, Watson reflected. Half an hour? Perhaps they did it more than once. Or perhaps Hans needed to coax her some more, quote the lyrics of yet another soppy ballad, before Claudia succumbed. “So Aberdeen hears them in the garage, goes in, sees his princess with her legs around a boy―”
“Wouldn’t he shoot Hans straight away, sir? Or punch him in the head, pull him off his daughter somehow?”
Jones was right. Watson didn’t have to be a dad to understand that much.
“The mom, though.” Jones stopped for a red light. “I can see the mom.”
Watson could see Mrs Aberdeen only too well, just not the way Jones did. He dragged his imagination out of the gutter, where he and the lovely Mrs Aberdeen (what a pity he didn’t know her first name) were having a fabulous time on beige leather, and stopped thinking with his other head.
“So you’re saying Mrs Aberdeen waited up with her husband? She was the one who entered the garage and saw her daughter having sex, or heard the rape accusation. Hans walked Claudia to the front door, and she let her husband greet them while she went to get the gun. Notice how the Cobra, with its short barrel, is the type of weapon that would fit into a handbag. When Hans left, she ran after him. Called out to him, and when he turned around, she popped four bullets and left him to die where he fell.”
“It makes sense, sir, doesn’t it?”
It did make sense. Unfortunately for the lovely Mrs Aberdeen.
“So, are you going to order a search of the Aberdeen property?”
“But sir, the gun?”
“Is probably in Soweto. They’ve had two days to get rid of it. You don’t seriously believe they would keep a murder weapon in the wall safe?”
“We haven’t even interviewed Mrs Aberdeen, sir. She looks like the type who’d confess.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. Come on, Jones, hasn’t her daughter suffered enough already? Claudia’s boyfriend is dead; he turned out not to be the person she had thought he was; she probably assumes that she’s damaged goods and that no man will marry her. She doesn’t need her mom in jail.”
“Sir, with respect, the law―”
“– is not always right. And deserves none of your respect. Let’s go, Jones.”
When they arrived at the station, Watson filed a report. Murder by person or persons unknown. Then he took Jones out to a Ladies’ Bar, where they chatted up two sisters while the jukebox was promising to keep on loving them.
Neither policeman managed to charm his way into any panties, but as 31 July gave way to 1 August 1981, Watson felt a sense of contentment wash over him. The communists were under control in Angola, that funny-looking Prince Charles had got himself a gorgeous young wife, Claudia Aberdeen would have her mother around to help her get over Hans Swanepoel, and Hans’s mother would never find out what a jerk she’d raised.
This was justice. Not as the law saw it, of course, but as Trevor Watson, Captain, knew it had to be delivered.
Read more about author Yvonne Walus here
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.