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Colors That Bleed

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New Raja Williams Mystery Thriller

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Prologue

Conjure up visions of lions or leopards hunting zebra or gazelle in the tall grass, or herds of springbok spooked into springing frantically across an endless open expanse, and you are seeing the great African Highveld, a plateau plain that covers large parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The moderate continental climate and changing seasons provide ample growth to support the large animals you might see roaming there.

Patiently circling turkey vultures frame the story that unfolds below, where the big cats have moved on from their kill to find a spot suited for a shady nap. A pack of brown hyenas rush in to fight over the scraps left from a zebra carcass. When they are finished the birds will quietly float down to clean up whatever remains. Everyone gets a turn.
South Africa is a beautiful country with a colorful rainbow of plant life, and a range of animals from the smallest to the largest, and from the gentlest to the most ferocious.

But the deadliest beast of all is man. And the colors of conflict in South Africa have been black and white that too often run red.
Centuries earlier when the Dutch first arrived, they settled in the lower coastal areas. The native population was slowly relieved of their land as the settlers were established. But turnabout is fair play, and severe oppression by the ruling Dutch East India Company was followed by wars with the British over the whole region that chased many Afrikaners, as they were called, toward the interior, where they found land suitable for farming.

These trekkers were called simply Boers, the Dutch word for farmer. They were Afrikaners who chose a rural, pastoral lifestyle that has carried forward into today’s South Africa. Seventy percent of the food crops that feed the nation are grown in the states where the Boers settled, and many farms are run by the descendants of these original trekkers.

Lonnie Swartvaal was one of those Boer descendants, a successful farmer on a medium-sized farm outside of Richtenburg who raised maize that he sold to the Pick n Pay supermarket chain. He led the hard-working life of a farmer that hasn’t changed very much over the generations since his ancestors settled there in the 1700’s. Like many of the smaller farmers, he also raised sorghum as a cash crop and had chickens, a vegetable garden, and a small orchard to help maintain the self-sustaining lifestyle he appreciated.

Lonnie had four black farmhands that worked the fields for him. They had done a great job this year and he had given them the weekend off. They had gone to the nearby Bantustan, an all-black community where they lived.

Lonnie, his wife Charlize, his fourteen-year-old son and his eight-year-old daughter sat down for dinner at six. Having noticed for several weeks that Lonnie was more agitated and short-tempered than usual, Charlize had cooked his favorite potjiekos, a traditional Afrikaner meat stew slow-cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot with plenty of vegetables, and spiced with kapokbos, a rosemary variant, and lemony spekboom. Jack, their nine-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback, sat patiently next to Lonnie, knowing he would get whatever Lonnie didn’t finish.

The children ate silently while the adults talked, Lonnie about the maize crop which he hoped would be strong this year with the higher than average rainfall, and Charlize about her sister’s new baby.

Seeing the warm smile on Charlize’s face as she spoke, Lonnie said, “Are you thinking Bern and Ava need a new little brother or sister?”

“Heavens no. I love our children to death, but I’m done with that. My sister Bibi is the baby factory in the family. This is her sixth, you know.”

“I lost count after the twins. I’m sure Mayor Beck must be happy. He’s been campaigning to raise the Afrikaner birth rate at all the town meetings.”

“I hope you haven’t made any promises,” said Charlize.

“No, I’m good with these two monkeys. How is school, Bern?” The question meant the children were now invited to speak.

“Okay,” said Bern, in his typical tight-lipped teenage fashion.

“He’s got a girlfriend,” said Ava.

“Do not.”

“Do to. I saw you holding hands with Chrissie Van Wyk before we left school. You were kissing her, too, when no one was looking.”

“I was not.”

“Were to.”

“Ava, you shouldn’t tease your brother,” said Charlize. “You’re going to want a boyfriend when you get older and you won’t want Bern to tease you, will you?”

“Ewww. No I won’t. Boys are yuck.”

Lonnie smiled wistfully, knowing that sentiment would change much too soon for his liking.

Lonnie had two large helpings, as usual. He was a big man, as big and brawny as Charlize was petite. When they were all done eating, Charlize brought out a tray of fresh baked koeksisters, a syrupy braided pastry, and a pot of tea. The children bickered until Lonnie chased them away from the table.

“Go out and feed the chickens,” he said. “And don’t wander off. Take Jack out with you, but don’t let him run too far.” Jack was old and half blind. Several times he had chased a red rock hare far into the fields and had trouble finding his way back.

That night after the children went to bed, Charlize led Lonnie into their own room to put the finishing touch on a good day. Jack, who usually slept on the floor next to Lonnie, laid down outside their door.

 

Early the next morning while it was still dark, the rooster began crowing and Lonnie got everyone up. It was Saturday and the kids were off from school, but there were always chores to be done. Lonnie went out in the fields for several hours, checking that the irrigation ditches were open and feeding the young maize plants. The climate was good for crops, but irrigation was a must.

After gathering eggs and cleaning the coop, the children returned to the house to wait for breakfast. The sun was now peeking over the horizon turning the sky a mixture of pale pink and blue. Bern stayed on the porch, talking secretly on his phone. That had started about a month back, and Charlize assumed that Ava was right. Bern had reached the age when girls took front and center in a boy’s mind. Charlize hadn’t asked and, as usual, Bern had nothing to say about it. She made a mental note to ask Lonnie if he’d had the talk with their son. With the epidemic level of HIV in South Africa it was better to be safe than sorry.

Charlize watched Ava sitting on the braided rug having an animated conversation with one of her dolls. Charlize smiled, remembering how important her own dolls had been at that age.

Finally Lonnie came in for breakfast. Field work was strenuous and produced plenty of appetite. Charlize served him boerewors, a sausage made locally at a neighbor’s cattle and sheep ranch, sliced in half and fried, along with sautéed mushrooms. Lonnie could easily eat a foot and a half of sausage in one sitting. The children had eggs and buttered bread, after which Lonnie sent them outside to play.

“Remember, Bern, you keep an eye on Ava at all times.” There had been an uptick in the number of robberies on farms on the Highveld in recent years. With the greater distances between farms, getting adequate protection from the police was impossible. In the past, the farming communities formed local volunteer militias called commandos, a form of neighborhood watch, that filled the need. However, since the commandos were banned by the government, the farms had become tempting targets for robbers.

The children wandered into the small orchard behind the barn. Ava chased the blue pansy butterflies feeding on the creeping foxglove that grew in the uncultivated areas of the farm. Bern sat on a rock and watched, taking a bite from a kei apple he had picked.

“Help me, Bern,” said Ava, trying but failing to catch one.

“Let ’em be, Ava,” said Bern.

“They’re pretty. I want one,” said Ava, darting about.

“You can’t always get what you want,” said Bern, repeating the lesson he had learned from his father. After Ava gave up her quest, she insisted Bern play Rol Die Deeg, a patty-cake game for children.

“You have to sing,” said Ava, but Bern refused. Then he had an idea.

“Let’s play hide and seek. You have to go and hide. I’ll count to one hundred.”

“Why can’t I count while you go hide?”

“Can you count to one hundred?” Ava thought about that, running through her numbers in her head.

“No.”

“That’s why.”

“Hide your eyes,” said Ava. Bern did, and Ava ran into the orchard. As soon as she was gone, Bern stopped counting and went back to eating his apple.

Ten minutes later Lonnie showed up. “What do you think you are doing?” he said, startling Bern enough that he nearly fell off his perch.

“Where is your sister?”

“We’re playing hide and seek.”

“You’re supposed to be watching her.”

“She’s hiding.” Lonnie cuffed the boy on the back of the head, and said something in Afrikaans. Bern looked puzzled, not understanding what his father said.

“You need to know Afrikaans, boy. I don’t care what they are teaching you in school.” The children were using English in school now and many were forgetting Afrikaans. “Go find your sister.” Bern found Ava crouched behind a mock orange bush and brought her to their father.

“I told you not to wander off by yourself, didn’t I?” said Lonnie.

“We were playing hide and seek,” said Ava.

“I don’t care what you were doing. Go do your chores.”

“We already did them,” said Bern.

“Go check for eggs.”

“I checked an hour ago,” said Bern.

“Enough. Don’t talk back to me, boy.” Lonnie cuffed him on the back of the head again, this time a little harder. It was something he rarely did, but the stories about attacks on the farms had Lonnie on edge. “I said go check the chickens for eggs. I don’t want any more going broody. Then go straight into the house and help your mother.”

Bern grabbed Ava by the hand and stomped off.

“You don’t have to pull me,” said Ava, trying to resist.

“Come on,” said Bern, still pulling.

“Why is father so mad?” said Ava.

“I don’t know. Get your basket.” Ava picked up a wicker basket. Bern chased two chickens off their nests and grabbed the two eggs they had laid. He placed them carefully in the bottom of Ava’s basket. “That’s it. Let’s go.”

Lonnie went into the barn, with Jack dutifully following. The children walked into the farmhouse and Ava put her basket on the kitchen table. When Charlize came out carrying a rolled up rug, Ava said, “Father said we should help you clean.”

“Why don’t you start by cleaning your room.” Charlize took the rug outside and hung it over the side porch railing to beat it. She leaned over to pick off a stubborn piece of lint and when she stood up, someone hit her over the head knocking her to the ground unconscious.
Eventually Lonnie came out of the barn. When he saw the blood on the door jamb he ran inside to get his rifle. It was gone.

“Looking for this?” said a voice behind him. “Let’s go.” The man walked him at gunpoint outside and into the barn.

Charlize slowly woke up. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious. Her head throbbed and when she tried to get up she was so dizzy she fell to her knees. All she could think of was the children. She forced herself up and went inside calling their names. When she saw the two of them lying across their beds in a pool of blood, she staggered backward.

Charlize ran outside screaming for her husband. When she stumbled into the barn she saw Lonnie. He was tied to a chair, with blood dripping down his chest and arms. She dropped numbly to her knees and someone put a burlap bag over her head. She heard someone singing a song. It was an anti-apartheid theme referred to as Kill the Boer that featured this line: “Shoot the Boer, shoot, shoot, shoot them with a gun.”

It was the last thing Charlize heard before passing out.

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