Port Nolloth is a biscuit-colored town in Namaqualand, the slab of desert that forms the northwestern corner of South Africa. The frigid Benguela Current scrapes along the coast. Every morning the cold sea rolls a dense band of fog onto the land. It had burned off by the time I set out along the seafront to find Slav Lily.
The diamond fleet tugged and jingled at its moorings in the anchorage. Fierce rip-tides battled at the harbor entrance. The ocean boiled in a fury around the offshore reefs. Every now and then a towering sheet of spray exploded from the breakwater as a huge Atlantic comber smashed itself to bits.
The sea was too rough for the tubby little diamond boats that locals call tupperwares. Usually they put to sea at dawn, trailing their suction hoses behind them. When they reached the inshore diamond ground the divers would go over the side. They vacuumed the diamond gravels for hours at a time in the freezing water. Today the wind was up. The surge would turn the shallow seabed where the divers worked into a storm of rocks and sand. The fleet stayed bottled up in port while the crews languished in the bars or headed north for a few days to steal diamonds in Namibia.
I found Lily in the front pew of the church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Morning Mass had just finished. I slipped in behind her. She knelt with her hands joined and her eyes closed, her head bent forward. I breathed in the faint scent of incense. Under the pale-blue vault of the ceiling, a deep silence reigned. The boom of surf crashing on the beach only made the church more peaceful.
Church reminded Lily of her parents, of her childhood in Mirny, the Siberian diamond city where she grew up. Grew up very fast. Orphaned at sixteen, evicted into the street by gangsters, she’d made herself into one of the most successful diamond thieves on earth. Then I showed up. I caught her in a trap and turned her into a double agent. In church I think she brushed all that away, and returned to the child she’d been. By practicing a faith, by observing its rituals, she reached back into that lost world, where devoted parents cradled and protected her. As I watched her pray, her head bowed and her hands joined, I felt a powerful urge to reach forward and touch her. But I didn’t.
Before we left, Lily folded five hundred-dollar bills into a neat wad and shoved it through the slot beneath the votive candles. She lit a large one near the top. It flamed into life behind the ruby-colored glass. She made the sign of the cross and genuflected to the Virgin. We walked down the side aisle and out the door.
The sea had started to settle. Crews were moving around on some of the diamond boats. I doubted they’d put to sea. The swell would last for another day. Not far from the harbor entrance, the ocean ground its teeth on the reefs. We sat on a bench above the harbor while Lily brought me up to date.
While I’d been lying lashed to my bed in a delirium, Lily had tracked down Piet Louw, the South African who’d found the diamond called the Russian Pink.
“When will he get in?” I said.
“He may not come in this rough sea.”
“It’s calmer at night.”
“And he’s coming from the offshore fleet?”
“He bought a small ship with the proceeds of the Pink,” Lily said. “Now he buys from the crews of the Anglo-Dutch diamond ships. He brings in his rough tonight.”
“Any time. We should be ready from sunset.”
Her voice had that metallic harshness that took on an extra edge when she was angry. The onshore breeze ruffled her hair. The tips of her ears peeped through the curls. The bruise she’d got in New York was a livid yellow shading into purple.
“I’m sorry I got you into this, Lily.”
She turned to me in an icy rage.
“You use me, Alex. I’m a thing. I don’t matter. You pretend I do because it makes you feel better.” She spoke flawless English with a faint accent—too precise to be American and too slick with Russian vowels to be British. “You carry this burden of guilt about your mother, and it poisons us. Your mother wasn’t the only person capable of loving you. You didn’t destroy the right to be loved because you couldn’t save her.”
She had that wrong. Sure I was broken up by my mother’s death. I was twelve. But her death didn’t cost me a mother’s love. She didn’t love me. She loved my dad. It was an obsession that left no room for anybody else.
Lily’s mood could shift in an instant. The storm blew out of her eyes and her face softened and she took my hands.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I didn’t mean to throw that in your face. But it won’t kill us to speak from our hearts. We’ll go crazy if we don’t.”
Lily was a whirlpool into whose vortex I had fallen long ago. After I’d turned her, we had torn a year to shreds, hurtling off to places like the north coast of Iceland. Think about it: private geothermal pool plus frenzied Russian girl plus zero chance of surveillance.
She had a ravenous heart. She’d come out of the Siberian steppe with a mind shaped into an instrument of acquisition. Suddenly there was Europe. She put out her hand to open it like the lid of a music box, enraptured by the glittering tableau inside. Sure, she was rapacious. She’d had to be. Her audacity as a thief—that’s what had preserved her in the bear-pit of the Russian diamond fields. In Europe, that battered heart had found a universe of delight.
Flemish painting, Italian shoes. Lobster salad. Coffee!
She fell on it like a starving woman.
French jeans, the Porsche.
Then she discovered that she wanted more than art and thousand-dollar shirts. I’m not saying that suddenly Lily found in her icy, Siberian core a warm and tender person. That she got up one day, ran her eye down her list of assets, and decided to add human affection. That’s not how it happened. But the sheer profusion of sensory material expanded her. Her spirit enlarged. And that’s when I showed up.
The setting sun was splashing the surface of the sea with molten copper when we left Port Nolloth and drove north along the diamond coast. Just before the Orange River, a range of dark hills between the highway and the sea marked the last of the South African beach mines, a government-run operation that chewed dispiritedly through the depleted sands. Once the sun set, the desert would come alive with the figures of thieves streaming like an army of shadows across the highway and through the porous fence.
At the village of Alexander Bay we left the highway and dropped down into the delta of the Orange River. We bumped along a potholed gravel road that wound its way through tall marsh grass and clumps of shrubbery. As we rounded a bend, a dense cloud of flamingoes erupted from the surface of a pond, rending the night with their panicked cries.
The road ended at a small parking lot where a jetty poked into the sluggish current. Just west of where we stood, the Orange River ended its 1,400-mile journey from the Drakensberg Mountains and flowed into the ocean. Seals barked on the sandbars at the river mouth. Only a small channel pierced the barrier. Piet Louw would come through that.
On the north side of the river the low, black shape of a bluff showed where Namibia began. You can cross at a bridge upriver, but unless you have a special permit you won’t get further than the border post. Inland and along the coast lies a 10,000-square-mile control zone called Diamond Area 1. When Namibia was still a German colony, the area was called the Sperrgebiet —the Forbidden Territory. The beach mines of South Africa are all tapped out, but in Namibia, towering bucketwheel excavators the size of Ferris wheels strip the richest coast in the world. Far offshore, much further out than the little tupperwares of Port Nolloth venture, the red ships of the Namibian diamond fleet smash up the seabed with drills and suck the diamond-bearing gravels up into shipboard recovery plants.Like schooling fish, thieves and smugglers swarm this rich feeding ground.
Like schooling fish, thieves and smugglers swarm this rich feeding ground. Every night a stream of stolen diamonds makes its way across the Orange River and down the old pathways of the diamond coast to Port Nolloth, where middlemen supply it with the paperwork for the onward journey to the diamond bourse in Johannesburg.
We heard the sound of tires crunching on gravel. Piet’s flunkeys. We’d been expecting them. I slipped into the tall marsh grass. A white Ford F-150 with its headlights off came into view and stopped. There were two of them. They kept the engine idling, and can’t have been happy to find an unexpected complication waiting at the rendezvous in the form of a parked SUV and a woman walking towards them. The driver rolled his window down and stared at Lily.
“I seem to be lost,” said Lily in her throaty accent.
The driver turned and said something in Afrikaans to his companion. They both had a good laugh. I had moved around through the pampas grass. While they were distracted by Lily, I was supposed to step out of the grass and put the barrel of my Czech machine pistol into the passenger’s ear. And here’s how fast things can go wrong:
The driver grabbed Lily by the arm. He was fast, and very strong. His hand clamped her above the elbow and he yanked her against the door so hard her head banged the frame. At the same time, the passenger opened his door, climbed out and walked around the truck. He yanked up Lily’s shirt. The Glock fell out and clanked on the gravel.
The passenger swore angrily and kicked the gun away. The driver had her tightly held against the door. His accomplice drew a knife and held the blade in front of Lily’s face. Struggling to pull her face away from the knife, she caught sight of me coming out of the grass and approaching the open passenger-side door. I made a sideways gesture with the barrel. With all her strength she managed to lean away from the driver. I stretched across the cab and shot his head away.
The explosion of machinegun fire and the bits of skull spattering his face made the man fling himself away in blind terror. He uttered a high-pitched scream, and started scrabbling on the ground looking for the Glock. I came around and kicked him in the throat.
Lily’s face was frozen. Her eyes seemed adrift, unable to focus. She shook uncontrollably. An awful, tearing sound came from her chest as she gasped for breath. I put out my hand and she dug her fingers into it.
“It’s OK, Lily.”
I bound the knife guy hand and foot with plastic ties and heaved him into the back of the truck. I handed Lily her Glock. She stared at it.
“Now we have to listen,” I said quietly.
She stood stock-still. The delta was noisy—wind rattling in the reeds, spooked flamingoes, the distant boom of the surf. But the wind was blowing onshore. I doubted anyone approaching from the sea would have heard the gunfire. The man on the ground made gagging noises so I hit him with a rock, tied him up and loaded him into the back of the F-150.
A line of black clouds straggled up the coast. There was just enough moonlight to dab a strip of pewter onto the tops of the clouds and add a few highlights to the immense, heaving presence of the ocean beyond the bar. A wild pig snuffled and grunted somewhere in the grass nearby. I heard the buzz of Piet’s outboard before I saw the zodiac. He came through a narrow slot in the sandbar and slowed to navigate the channel. I stood at the end of the jetty, watching him come. The shred of moon was behind me. He hailed the dock in Afrikaans. I raised an arm and shouted back a garbled string of syllables that I hoped would do the trick, what with the wind and the engine and the swish of water on his boat. Piet came straight in. He cut the engine and nosed the rubber dinghy into the dock. There was an AK-47 on the seat beside him.
“Hey, Piet,” I said. “If you touch the AK, I’ll kill you where you sit.”
Piet sat there staring up at me for a minute while his head churned through the possible courses of action available to him and arrived correctly at the number zero. Even somebody as stupid as Piet could see that he was trapped.
“Ditch it in the water,” I said, “and the .38 in the ankle holster too.”
When the guns splashed into the river I stepped back and told him to get out.
He pretended to have trouble balancing the boat while he tried to push a small canvas bag out of sight with the toe of his shoe.
“Toss the rough to my partner,” I told him as Lily stepped out of the shadows.
I cuffed him, shoved him into the back seat and climbed in beside him. Lily drove. Piet didn’t say a word as we bumped past the F-150. Even in the feeble light you could see the cloud of mosquitoes around the slumped, headless driver and the figure in the back. If their fate bothered Piet, he kept it to himself.
From THE RUSSIAN PINK. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus. Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Hart.