Tollie Erasmus looked at the room in which he
was about to die, and saw there the story of his life. Nothing
had ever turned out quite the way he’d imagined it.
For once, however, he was very relieved to find this was so.
In nightmare after nightmare, he had seen himself in a harshly
lit execution chamber that had whitewashed walls and high
fanlights, a scrubbed wooden floor and a crude beam, a long
lever and a thick, bloodstained rope. Whereas, in fact, the
chamber was far more like a hospital corner, screened off by
green curtaining and lit by a warm orange glow; there was a
clinical sparkle to the brass pulley, and the rope was so clean
it must have been specially sterilized, assuring him of a swift,
certain, scientifically humane end to his days.
Tollie was thinking very fast, absorbing all this in a twinkling
while, on another level, wondering what had happened to
all the in-between bits. He couldn’t remember his arrest, the
trial, or the passing of sentence. It was like coming round in
a dentist’s chair: you knew where you were and why, but you
didn’t want to probe too much for fear of the onrush of pain.
His other senses were recovering now. He smelled the
prison stink of disinfectant and tasted brandy. In his left hand
was something squarish. His hand wasn’t visible. None of him
was visible. He had been rolled up in a sheet so expertly he
couldn’t move. A sheet wrapped round and round and round,
and pinned neatly down the side with safety pins. He was sitting
in a chair, bound to it by a wide, soft bandage that went
round and round and round.
This couldn’t be right. Think, Tollie, think fast.
The shape of the room was wrong. Every weekday morning
at Pretoria Central he’d waited in the soccer yard to be marched
off to the workshops with the others. Facing him, as he stood
there, had been two and a half stories of solid wall with only
a fanlight near the top. If you didn’t guess right away that this
was the gallows building, you soon enough learned, because
on Tuesdays and Thursdays there was often a delay while they
finished nailing down the coffin lids. Inevitably, you came to
know its dimensions pretty well, and this room just didn’t go
with them at all. Think faster.
The pulley for only one rope was another thing—and so was
the amount of floor space. He knew for a fact that sometimes
they strung up six kaffirs at once, and no way could six stand
side by side on that area of trap door. Naturally, the warders
liked to exaggerate the figures they dealt with, but he had seen
the evidence of a multiple hanging with his own eyes. After
leaving the soccer yard, you went up some steps at the side of
the gallows building and along a passage between the door to
the laying-out room and the door they brought them out of,
over sawdust sprinkled to keep the drips of blood from sticking
to your feet. And one Thursday morning, after an unusually
long delay, he had actually seen six pairs of soggy khaki shorts
being dropped outside the door for collection by the laundry.
He recalled the warder winking at him, and wiping a hand on
He had ears as well. He couldn’t hear the sound that never
ceased within the walls of Central—except, very abruptly,
when the traps went down: the sound of the kaffir condemneds
singing hymns and chanting in the great cell in B2. They always
sang even louder before a hanging, making “Abide with Me”
last all night, driving A and B sections crazy, which served the
privileged bastards right. Although even in C, which was that
much farther away, they got to you when the lights came on
at five-thirty and there was that final upsurge before the long,
Fighting to impose his sanity on an insane situation, Tollie
put a simple question to himself: If I’m not in Central, then
where the sod am I?
It wasn’t a dream, and logically he couldn’t be anywhere
else, despite all the—
Tollie knew exactly where he was, and just why things
hadn’t matched up to his experience. He had been away from
Central a good while, and had forgotten the new building
for the condemneds which had been going up on the rise just
behind it. A really modern place, the papers had said, with
all sorts of up-to-date ideas; the inmates had nicknamed it
In that same instant, everything slotted into place. The idea
of having one gallows for all races had always surprised him;
this was the gallows reserved for whites, which explained the
curtains and the single rope. The constant hymn-singing from
B2, back in the old block, had worked on everyone’s nerves;
now, the kaffirs had been put in a new section that was sensibly
soundproofed. As for the sheet around him, it was an
improvement on the old straight jacket, which, as the warders
had often complained, had never worked all that well on the
really stroppy cases.
Having resolved the immediate conflicts set up by his awakening
in a room like that, Tollie suddenly realized he’d never
had a mental blackout before. In fact, he could remember quite
“Don’t be frightened, son, you won’t feel any pain,” said a
deep voice behind him. “We’re all here and it’s half-past five
on the dot.”
In his time, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Trekkersburg
Murder and Robbery Squad had been asked to believe
many things. But when they told him that Tollie Erasmus had
hanged himself, he simply shook his head.
“See for yourself,” said the new man in Fingerprints, dealing
him a photograph from the batch in his hand. “I took that myself
this morning, as you can tell from how nice and clear it is.”
Kramer used an apathetic finger to bring the picture round
the right way up on the bar counter. Sure enough, that was the
face of Tollie Erasmus, all right: a sleekly handsome, pointy
face, with small, close-set eyes; the sort of face a bull terrier
would have if it were human. A dead face, moreover, and there
was a rope around the neck.
“Where?” he murmured, glancing up to see who else had
come across to the hotel from police headquarters opposite.
He really should have guessed. Why, it was none other
than Sergeant Klip Marais, the gladdest bearer of ill tidings in
the Criminal Investigation Department, and, an obsequious,
sometimes quarrelsome, little runt to boot.
“Lieut Gardiner said to inform you immediately,” explained
Marais, his tone repenting the levity shown by his companion.
“We saw the note you had left in your office for Zondi, and
so. . . .”
“Where?” Kramer repeated.
“Ach, upcountry,” said the new man. “They had him unidentified
at Doringboom, and the Lieut sent me to get prints, et
cetera. Then, when I got back just now, the other blokes all recognized
him straight off, and I was sent to find you in CID.”
He seemed amused by his present surroundings.
“So Doringboom is handling this?” Kramer said, pocketing
the print. “When are they doing the P.M.?”
“This afternoon, I hear.”
“Uh huh. The body was found when?”
“In one of those picnic places for cars alongside the national
road, about twenty kilometers this side of Doringboom. His
car was there also, a green Ford, and he’d strung himself up
on a thorn tree just by the fence. Some umfaans made a report
to a family that had stopped for breakfast with their caravan.
He hadn’t been there all that long; only a few hours—or that’s
what the doc says.”
“Don’t ask me—the local district surgeon, whoever he is.”
Kramer stared at this new man, and then decided that he was
not going to be an asset to crime detection in the division. Shyness
made some people cocky, and so did being the minimum
required height of five foot six, but here was an object that
was neither of those things: if anything, he was almost as tall
as Kramer himself, a lot bulkier, and his swagger showed even
in the way his greasy quiff was combed back.
It was curious how the unbelievable had this effect, tempting
you into thinking about petty irrelevancies, while, deep inside,
certain adjustments were made.
“Are you offering?” the new man asked, nodding at the drink
in front of Kramer.
“Um—I think I’d best be getting back,” said Marais, edging
away. “Um—see you, hey?”
They watched him go.
“By the way, I’m Klaas Havenga,” the oaf announced, snapping
his fingers for the Indian barman. “A brandy and orange,
no ice, and the officer here is paying for it.”
“The same,” Kramer added, noting how automatic his
responses had become.
He took out the picture for another look at it.
“So what’s this all about?” Havenga asked, after using his
first sip as a mouth rinse. “Marais was trying to tell me as we
came across, but you know how that bugger talks, nineteen to
the dozen like a bloody coolie.”
The barman, a sensitive soul, moved to the far end of the
counter, taking his newspaper with him. He’d been writing
some interesting names into the crossword when the two jokers
had arrived, armed with their bombshell.
“I was looking for him,” said Kramer, feeling nothing as yet.
“Oh, ja? Is it true he tried to take a pot shot at you once,
only your boy went and buggered things up?”
“Three months ago,” Kramer replied, taking some ice
from the plastic barrel. “We got a late tip-off there could be a
raid up on that rise in Peacevale where there’s a line of Bantu
business premises—ach, you know, along that dirt road that
runs parallel to the dual carriageway. They were trying out
the idea of a small bank there at the time. Right on noon, our
informant said, but when we rolled up, the bloody thing was
already in progress.”
“Not that it looked like it. The people outside didn’t even
know at that particular moment, he was so quick. They were
used to seeing armed whites going in, carrying the bank’s
money—and the same went for the bank employees. The stupid
bastards took him right up to the safe and opened it. Anyway,
Erasmus comes running out with his gun up before we realized
the position. Mine was still in under here, so Zondi spins
the car around, to give me time to draw. As he comes on to
Erasmus’s side, he gets a thirty-eight in the leg, straight through
the bloody door. That was it.”
“How do you mean?” asked Havenga, frowning.
“The leg went stiff, onto the accelerator, and we went into
the front of this fruit shop—glass, grapes, cabbages everywhere.
The owner was killed outright.”
Never, so it seemed, had the man heard anything funnier.
Kramer smiled indulgently as he came up for air.
“Jesus Christ! C-c-cabbages everywhere!” Havenga gasped,
rejoicing in such a vision. “Man, you’ll have to excuse me a sec.”
And he used the back of his inky hand to smear the tears
from his eyes, before beckoning for the barman.
“Same again,” he ordered. “Only this time I pay.”
“Like hell,” said Kramer, and the matter rested there.
While the barman saw to their refills, a bright splash of
reflected light began to flutter across the bottles and glasses
on the shelves behind the counter.
“Who’s doing that?” muttered some old bugger irritably,
following its progress back and forth.
Nobody could answer him, so he slid off his stool and went
over to the mullioned windows behind them, which gave the
bar its spurious look of a Tudor tavern. But the frosted panes
defeated his attempts to peer through, and he went out onto
the pavement to do some shouting.
“So go on,” Havenga invited Kramer, clinking glasses.
“While your boy was making a damn fool of you in all those
grapes and bloody mangoes, Tollie got clean away?”
“This is the first time you’ve heard of him since?”
“The first. His home town was Durban, but he didn’t go
back there. We’ve had a running check going in all the big
centers—Joey’s, Cape Town, P.E.—without any joy so far.
What plates did he have on his car?”
But Havenga was distracted at that moment by the return
of the old misery from the pavement.
“Who was it?” asked a visiting farmer, who’d apparently
ordered them both fresh lagers in the meantime. “Some kid
“No, some insolent little black bastard, waggling his tobacco
tin or something about over the other side, just grinned at
me—you know the type. Dressed up like a dog’s dinner in a
bloody suit he must have swiped. I don’t know. This for me?
Very good of you, old chap.”
“If you like, I’ll go and kick his backside,” the farmer offered,
being a much younger man.
“No, no; I’ve sent him packing! Best of health!”
Havenga grinned cynically and turned back to Kramer.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I asked you about his sodding plates.”
“Ach, I never saw them. Don’t these bloody English kill
The splash of light crossed Havenga’s face even as he spoke,
slipping from it to move like a butterfly from the Oude Meester
brandy over to the till.
“What’s he playing at?” exploded the old man, banging down
his tankard. “Just who the devil does he think he is?”
Suddenly Kramer came to, and realized he knew the probable
answers to both those questions. Not only this, but that
he’d now made his adjustments, and the time had come to
“Duty calls?” asked Havenga, puzzled to see him rise so
purposefully for no obvious reason.
“Duty, Sergeant? I came off duty officially at six o’clock this
“But I . . . you mean, Marais. . . ?”
And the new man in Fingerprints looked at the glass in his
hand, before coming the old comrade with a slightly uneasy
laugh: “You aren’t going to report me, hey, sir?”
“Naturally,” said Kramer, just for the hell of it.
Over on the other side of the street, just as he’d supposed,
leaned the jaunty figure of Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey
Zondi, still overcoming his problem of access to the bar with
the aid of a spare 9mm magazine, angled to catch the sun. An
instant later, however, this had stopped, and the fly little sod
was on his way across.
“How goes it, Mickey?”
“Not so good, boss—and not so bad. I was two hours with
Mama Makitini, but she swears to God she never had one drop
of that vodka in her shebeen. Then, by chance, I find Yankee Boy
Msomi round the back of Pillay’s place, and I get a tip for us to
watch where the Mpendu brothers go tonight, because maybe
there is a connection. I am sorry you had to wait so long.”
“That’s okay; just got a bloody gutsful of the office. I’ve
“Who with? The old guy with the fine command of the Zulu
language?” Zondi joked, waving a shaky fist. “Only it would be
a kindness to explain to him the difference between bhema and
bhepa. He crudely told me to go and smoke myself.”
“Boss?” asked Zondi, quick to match moods.
“Forget the bloody vodka and the Mpendus. I’m going to
have a word with the Colonel, while you get the car filled up.
Be in the yard at one.”
“Where do we go?”
“Doringboom. A post-mortem in Doringboom.”
“Hau! This is a murder inquiry?”
“Well, at the moment,” Kramer said, “that seems to be a
matter of opinion. Here, you tell me what you think.”
He handed over the photograph.
Zondi’s fleeting scowl was involuntary. He returned the
picture, gave no sign of what was going through his head, and
took a step away.
“I get the car, boss.”
Kramer set off in the opposite direction, heading for the
CID building, then side-stepped into the shadow of an offloading
Coke truck. That limp wasn’t getting any better; in
fact, when Zondi thought you weren’t looking, it tended to become
a lot worse.
Excerpted from The Sunday Hangman by James McClure. Copyright © 2012 by James McClure. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.