"Southern Free" is a prequel of sorts to the Solar Wind series. I've blogged this first chapter on the "Red Ant", but here it is too.
“What the hell?” Police chief Dlamini stared disapprovingly at the apparition.
A young vagabond. Dlamini could tell the exact origins for every shade and nuance of Southern Frisbean that walked through the door of his police station, and this – thing here, dripping blood all over his floor, was not from here. Not from anywhere in this varied and colourful country.
His newest recruit, the pretty Nomvhulo Mafenyane, was clipping handcuffs on the creature, and Mpho was trying to extract a report out of it. Good luck – did it even speak English? He studied the scene for a moment and determined that it probably did. Not very well. One could barely make out what it was saying, so badly was it mispronouncing the words, torturing them individually.
It certainly looked dangerous. A youth, probably around sixteen years of age, with black, shoulder-length tangled hair, a dirty, middle-tanned face – light Indian perhaps, certainly not a whitey – but this individual was not Indian. Its facial features were sharp, its eyebrows falconic. The cheekbones were somewhat high-set, the nose narrow and slightly hooked. Dlamini listened to that accent. A European? From Russia perhaps? With a tan? Unlikely.
The youth had a cut above his left eyebrow and another slash across his arm; he was also bleeding through the left leg of his jeans. Someone had gone at him with knives.
“What happened?” asked police chief Dlamini.
“He refuses to give us a name,” said Nomvhulo.
The apparition’s eyes – dark and glittering, hard like diamonds – lifted to meet his.
“My name does not matter,” it said, every word a fresh assault. “This politia is a disgrace! Where are you when things happen?” It took a strained breath through its teeth, as though barely containing its fury. “I wish to report a mugging, an attempted kidnapping, and four murders.”
The day had started differently.
Shadow had woken up amidst field flowers and the scent of spring, with a feeling as though something were special today. Something in the Universe had shifted. Had the Unicate been vanquished? Had his luck changed? Or had a rare flower seed from an alien world found its way to Planet Earth, to land and shoot roots and begin growing? He couldn’t tell. It was the thirteenth of August, the year two-thousand one hundred – a year he had never thought he’d see.
He had walked the short distance to the little town of Sabie, the no-horse-town in Southern Free, thanking his lucky stars that here in this faraway world of wonders no Unicate hunted his tail. He was sixteen – the mad flight through Europe fresh in his mind. Here, he could wake up in safety.
The day had continued to be good to him, with Sabie holding a flower festival of sorts. That meant lots of stalls in the main road, and ample opportunity to nick a fresh bread roll for breakfast from one stall, and a bit of biltong from another after distracting the stall-holder with a few magic tricks involving his handkerchief and some money. The hanky was really only a torn-off bit of cloth from an old t-shirt, with which he usually cleaned his jack-knife. But it – literally – did the trick.
Of course nobody trusted him; he stuck out like a sore thumb in his nearly invisible old grey gypsy coat and his floppy grey vagabond hat. Well, too bad. The people of Sabie had better get used to him. He entertained more people with some sleight-of-hand tricks – old stuff he and his friends had practised on each other back home from no age at all. And then he got bored and found a place from where he could study the colourful melee. Hanging about aimlessly and wondering about this strange, peaceful country. Hours passed. Southern Free was a magical world. He’d never have believed it, back home.
“What are you doing, scruffy boy?”
Dark eyes glanced at the cherubic little girl from under the floppy grey hat. The young vagabond’s fingers stilled, forgetting about the small piece of wood and jackknife as he studied the child intensely.
Wispy blonde hair framed large, sky-blue eyes in a cute dolly-like face. The cheeks were pink and flushed. She wanted an answer!
Shadow glanced down at the carved voodoo doll in his hand, not the first he had carved, and it wouldn’t be the last. He laughed softly, embarrassed.
“Nothing.” He threw the item into the air and caught it again, and it vanished into his pocket. “Just making a toy for myself.”
“You play with dolls?”
He peered at her.
“And you should not talk to strangers! How old are you?”
Four chubby fingers were stuck as close to his face as she could reach. Funny how kids always seemed to presume that tall people were near-sighted!
“So you’re four?”
She nodded avidly.
“And do you have a name?”
“My name is Lucy! What’s yours?”
“Shadow,” said the young vagabond.
“That’s a fake!” exclaimed Lucy in disgust.
“No,” he said, “it’s my name.”
“Nobody is called Shadow!”
“Well, then I’m nobody!”
She stomped her foot. “Tell me your real name!”
The vagabond grinned and beckoned her closer. He cupped his hands to her ear.
“I eat children!” he hissed sharply.
Lucy recoiled and gave him a scathing look. “You’re weird!” She cocked her head and studied him. “Why are you sad?”
Shadow threw his head back and laughed brightly. And swallowed back the darkness that always got him when he tried talking to children.
Because his mind would go on a run-away mission. Blood, torn little bodies, and those poor, glassy dark eyes staring at him for the last time. And then the darkness in him would grow and start morphing, no matter how hard he had tried to leave that dark entity behind in Europe. Sadness. His whole life was steeped in it.
He put a lid on it. “I’m not sad. Where’s your mommy? Why are you talking to strangers?”
“She’s over there,” and the pudgy fingers waved in the indistinct direction of the main road, or what went for a main road here in Sabie.
Shadow squinted into the bright sunlight, trying to locate her in the melee of people. Any number of women could be “mommy”. Big gadchey women, fat gadchey women and some skinny, super-well-dressed gadchey women. Inbetween, a kaleidoscope’s worth of other kinds of gadje. There were no gypsies here in Southern Free. He was the only one.
“You’re lost, right?” he surmised. And his fingers dug in his pockets. “Here, have a sweetie.”
“Gimme!” Greedy little fingers reached for that sticky toffee. He withheld it. “Hey!” shouted Lucy.
“You shouldn’t take sweets from a stranger,” he advised with a smile. Something silver reflected in his teeth. “They could be drugs, you know!” He handed the small treat over, and she unwrapped it with amazing skill. Clearly she had practice. That sweetie vanished in her mouth.
Shadow peered into the masses. He’d better keep an eye on...
A well-padded gadchey bore down on them, swinging her handbag.
“Lucy! There you are! You there, get away from my daughter!”
Shadow grinned and performed an exaggerated bow, demonstratively stepping away from the little girl. The gadchey grabbed Lucy’s hand and yanked her away, starting down the road at a frightening speed.
“Bye, Shadow!” called Lucy happily, waving at him and ignoring the semi-hysterical ranting of her mother. “Be well!”
“You too, Sparklies,” he called after her. And he slumped back against the grey wall, pulling the voodoo doll and his jackknife back out of his pocket.
Sharktooth, he thought as he opened up the blade of his knife. It had been his only friend through many cold, dreadful nights filled with teeth, sirens, and uniforms hunting him. Its blade was good; it cut more than wood. Carving little items forced him to keep it razor-sharp. Knives did not rust when they were constantly used.
And his mind replayed him some of the other things Sharktooth had seen and done.
Shadow cursed under his breath and put his woodcarving away. Little girls like Lucy, whose stupid, offensive gadchey mothers let them run around unsupervised in a wild place like this, were an endangered species. In Romania, they all had known how to look after their children. And even that hadn’t stopped the forces of evil.
He trailed idly after the mother and daughter, out of sight. At least he could see that the pair got home safely.
Fire-red Barberton daisies were flowering along the roadside. Shadow deeply inhaled the thick, moist air. One thing about Eastern Province, this humid spot in the middle of the country they called Southern Free: It was always summer. Even in winter it was summer. The nights got cool, certainly; but nothing like he had lived through in the past four years, travelling west through Europe. With a shudder his mind returned to snowy nights spent with other vagrants around barrels of burning stuff – mainly rubbish. And some nights, darker and colder still, spent alone, up in trees, wrapped in his grey Tzigan coat; crouched and shivering and sick to his heart. But when the cold got too much he'd always found some place to crawl into between rubbish mounds; city rubbish and human rubbish, and sometimes a barn full of cows or sheep, animal-whispering them into allowing him to curl up and shelter against their body heat. And in the morning he'd been gone again, a drifter, a fugitive, invisible to all but the wind. Ha, that icy, icy wind!
Europe had not been good to him. But he had not been good to Europe, either! Ha! He had fought back. Four years of running for his life, and leaving a trail of blood, before he had escaped onto a south-bound ship.
His ears peaked. He thought he heard a little girl’s squeal of protest. He rolled his eyes skywards as he headed in the direction of the scream.
A second later they were back in view. Shadow iced. It had not been a toddler’s scream of protest; it had been a cry of panic. The woman was in a tug-of-war for her hand gun with one of Southern Free’s countless muggers. A second thug had grabbed little Lucy and was running for it. Ransom money? Or slave trade, thought the gypsy. Or worse, something sinister, something to do with the black magic that was still practised in some parts of this country.
He hurled a rock at the man who was struggling with the mother, and then his worn-out sneakers pounded the ancient tarmac as he ran after the other one.
Man, could those skebengos run! But not as fast as Shadow! He had outrun the wind; he had outrun the Unicate. The gangster was now only a few metres away and Shadow was gaining. He spotted the rest of the gang in the middle distance, glancing out behind one of Sabie’s curlicue antique stone buildings. Rats! Not enough time! The gypsy ripped out his jack-knife and threw it at the guy’s legs. It found its target in the hollow of the gangster’s knee, and he went down, losing his grip on Lucy. The wiry Romanian teen was on top of him, bashing his head to the pavement, giving Lucy a chance to run.
The preschooler stood staring at him instead.
"Shadow!" she squealed.
“Run to your mommy!” he shouted. The little girl bolted. Shukar.
The two remaining thugs were approaching at a run. Shadow got up, retrieved his floppy hat and put it back on, and pocketed his woodcarving knife. The foremost gangster slowed down and stopped, staring at his dead associate on the street. And the tell-tale gash at his throat.
“Sorry,” said Shadow. “Shouldn’t steal children.” He flashed a silvery smile.
They approached him with caution. He looked unarmed; but he had to have some knife, else how could he have cut the other man's throat?
“Hey,” said the gypsy, grinning, “it’s a free country!” He spread out his hands in a harmless gesture. The two gangsters jumped at him, eager to grab him before he could reach for his weapon. Shadow took off, straight back to the town, and to the police station. At its steps he stopped and turned to face his assailants, spreading his hands once again, taunting them. Grinning at them. Waiting. They caught up and grabbed him, one by each arm. This was Southern Free. The police was asleep.
Hours later, a badly beaten-up and injured young Romanian rebel banged on the antique little bell on the counter of Sabie’s police office.
“Atenţie! Atenţie! Poliţia!!”
Such a lot of swearwords! The young female officer emerged from the tearoom to see who was being so rude.
“May I help you?”
“I want to report a mugging, a kidnapping and four murders,” said Shadow, wiping the blood out of his eyes as it seeped down from a cut on his forehead.