Excerpt

The Wall

Max Annas, translated by Rachel Hildebrandt Reynolds

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Wall, Max Annas’s 2017 German Crime Fiction Prize-winning thriller about Moses, a young man who finds himself in the wrong part of the South African city of East London. When his car breaks down by The Pines, a gated community, he hopes to slip through the gates and request help from a classmate who lives there. But nothing goes as he hoped.

The metallic clang of the gate was still echoing in Moses’ head as he started to question his decision. They all looked the same, these gated communities. Houses facing each other, curving or angular streets, walls on the distant horizon. But he really thought he remembered this place. The six streets that curved away in identical arcs from the wall at the entrance. The houses carefully placed so they didn’t sit directly across from each other. The gently sloping site. To the right, beyond the outer wall, a hilly terrain, quite high at certain points. To the left, the road along which he had just come. Moses had a good visual memory. Yes, this was the subdivision he had visited last year. But where did that classmate live? Danie? Or Janie after all? And what would be the best way for him to try to find him?

Three of the streets started to his right, three to his left, all of them running in similarly soft continuous curves to the left. The houses within sight of the entrance were all one-storied. He could see the two-storied ones starting much further back in the enclave. And behind those flowed the river, if he recalled rightly. The Nahoon River, beyond the back wall. He hadn’t gone back that far last time. Or had he? But how far was that?

“Remember,” Moses said to himself. He walked a few meters to the left and stared down one of the streets, then in the other direction. Decided to start with the rightmost street, tackle things systematically. He’d remember when he saw the house.

How had they actually gotten here last year? Definitely not in his car since he hadn’t owned one at that point. He hadn’t saved up enough to buy the Toyota until a few months ago. Had they taken Ross’s car? Who else had been along? And why in the world was he asking himself these things in the first place?

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Because the whole picture would help stimulate his memory. If he could recall the group, their faces, the car, then he’d more easily recognize the house they had visited. And the name would come back to him. Japie? The Boers have such strange names, Moses thought.

A symbolic stretch of wall along the street, a few meters of grass and garden, a half-cube with windows, attached garage. Trees that offered a little shade, but were only half-grown. An old Hyundai was sitting in the driveway, two flat tires. Nobody had driven it anywhere lately. The scent of grilled meat, from where? Laundry on a drying rack in the front yard. Who would be home at this hour? The domestic workers, of course. But who else would be inside these walls this time of day? Everyone around here had jobs. And was Japie at home? Or Janie? What had he even looked like? Moses stopped and concentrated. Tall. Thin. Arrogant. Hairline already receding. Talked a blue streak. Moses had taken an instant disliking to him. Oh well, he’d help him either way.

A woman in a smock stood at a window, ironing, her back turned to the window as her massive arms moved slowly across the ironing board. She reached for a piece of cloth and wiped it across her face. The heat. And she was ironing as well. As she finished with the cloth, she turned around and caught sight of Moses. Was startled to see him just standing there, looking in the window. He walked on without waving, rubbed his hand over his sweaty forehead. He glanced at his watch. Exactly one o’clock. The plan had been to be making out with Sandi by this point.

He glanced at his watch. Exactly one o’clock. The plan had been to be making out with Sandi by this point.

He approached a T-intersection, the end of the first street. As he walked along, he became increasingly certain that his classmate didn’t live in one of these one-storied houses. Veering off to the right, another street continued in the exact same curve. Everything still on one level. Moses picked up his pace. Another T. The next street was straight, forking this time slightly toward the left. Running between two-storied houses now. The lots weren’t all that large down this street either, the second floors extending over the two-car garages. Flowers were growing in the front yard of one of the houses on the left side of the street. A small bed, every color imaginable. Moses had no idea what kind of flowers these were, but the fact that they were blooming brightly under the brutal sun indicated the amount of work that was being invested in them. He looked around. Who took care of the gardens here? Was there a crew for the entire gated community? Or did each house hire its own gardener? He had no idea how these people lived.

Moses came to a stop a few minutes later and did a double take. There was the house. He remembered the mailbox mounted on a wooden post next to the front door. The box looked like a miniature house open on one side. The wooden roof that extended beyond the two walls protected the box’s opening from the rain. Moses took a few steps toward the house, hesitated. Looked more closely. Wrong. This couldn’t be it. A Kaizer Chiefs jersey was hanging in one of the upstairs windows. The Boers didn’t watch soccer. Ever.

And Japie or Janie or Danie was a typical Boer boy. Moses would have picked up on anything out of the ordinary. He shook his head. Kaizer Chiefs fan. Downright subversive. This wasn’t the house.

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He paused again at the next T, glancing all around him. He had now covered most of the distance to the wall running along the river, almost the full length of The Pines. He took a couple of steps down the next street before realizing that something had caught his attention as he’d scanned the area. He looked back at the intersection and then up.

A small camera was mounted on one of the lamp posts.

Meli breathed in and out. He then inhaled the hot air one more time before turning on the lawn mower. The few blades of grass that were left for him to cut would make it hard for him to breathe for the rest of the day, but he really couldn’t complain. He was a gardener by profession. A good gardener, at that.

The exhaust from the old mower puffed up a Woolworth’s bag. It shot upward and hung for a second, suspended in the shimmering air. Meli put on the brake without cutting off the mower, as he tried to catch the empty bag. It deftly eluded his first attempt, but he then jumped up and grabbed it.

Looked more closely. Wrong. This couldn’t be it. A Kaizer Chiefs jersey was hanging in one of the upstairs windows. The Boers didn’t watch soccer. Ever.

He caught sight of a figure at the end of the street who was looking in his direction. A little scruffy, but not completely. Good posture. Head up. An afro like some of the young people were wearing again these days. The figure gave a quick wave. Meli waved back.

Not like the two people he had seen a few minutes ago at the other end of the street. He had instantly registered that the two of them were up to no good. The one in a suit, the other in a smock. Just like in one of those sitcoms that were always playing on TV. But what was this to him? The people around here might not realize what was going on, but that was their own fault.

The figure had disappeared again.

“What is it, Meli?” Mrs. Viljoen. That voice. Even the question was an order. She managed to drown out the engine as well.

“Nothing, madam,” he said just as loudly and clearly. “Then you should get back to work.”

“Right away, madam,” he said. He pulled his phone out of the pocket: 1:05. Still almost three hours to go until his day was over.

Thembinkosi quietly shut the door behind them.

“Everything okay with the lock?” Nozipho asked.

“Yep. Even if someone comes and unlocks it, they won’t notice anything.”

The two of them stood at a window and gazed out. Established practice. First, make sure that nobody has noticed you, then search the house. Usually, time was on their side.

A compact drove past outside.

“I don’t like these clothes,” Nozipho said.

“But they’re helpful.”

“You really don’t think anybody suspected?”

“Not at all.”

“I still don’t like the smock. I look like a cleaning lady.” “That was the whole idea!”

“Uh-huh… Do you remember the time we hired that white man?” Nozipho asked. “With the two of us as his servants?”

“Yes, it was a good idea. Too bad the white guy didn’t fit the type.”

“We bought him those new clothes.”

“And he still managed to look like a homeless person.”

“He was a homeless person. But it was a good idea.”

“It was a fabulous idea.” Thembinkosi broke off. “But honestly, he didn’t really act like a white man.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“What do you know about class differences?”

“Come on. Don’t start in on…”

“I think that was our mistake. We hired a poor white man.”

“But a rich one wouldn’t have done it.”

“Exactly. We should have analyzed the situation better. Our mistake.”

“Should we go ahead and start?”

Were there more cameras? Moses glanced around. Not on this street. He retraced his steps a short way. Nothing. A little further. Back to the T. This was the boundary between the one-and two-storied houses. Still nothing. Had anyone seen him? Maybe at the entrance? In the other direction, he saw the back of a man in overalls. Someone working in a garden, out in this heat. The man was too far away to hear him. He was just turning on the mower. Noise. The exhaust blew a plastic bag toward the street. The man parked the mower without shutting off the motor, ran after the bag, and caught it as it spun in the air. His eyes then fell on Moses. The man froze for a second, bag in hand. Moses waved. The man waved back with his empty hand and turned back to the garden. As he himself turned back around, Moses caught sight of the next camera. Only a few meters away. It was small, attached to yet another streetlamp. And it was pointed right at him. This made it two.

His eyes then fell on Moses. The man froze for a second, bag in hand. Moses waved. The man waved back with his empty hand and turned back to the garden.

Somewhere a car started. In second gear now, faster, the noise was drawing closer. The car was now in view, heading toward him. Moses hunched his shoulders and walked deeper into the subdivision, heading toward the wall at the river. The mid-range car drove past him, an older white woman at the wheel. Keep on walking, searching. He reached the last T. The street now ran right and left, parallel to the wall. The houses really did all look the same.

Systematically or instinctively? He should go to the right in order to check out the furthest back corner of the gated community, but he had a feeling he should head in the other direction if he wanted to find the house.

The lots along the wall were wider than the others he’d seen, with lawns and gardens along the front and both sides of the houses. Who was watching the footage from the cameras? And how many had been put up in here anyway? He had already seen two, so there had to be more. He heard hammering coming from one of the houses along the wall. Across the street, a laundry basket was sitting outside an open front door. Sounds from inside, some kind of rattling.

Moses kept walking.

He hadn’t seen a security shack at the entrance. Wherever the footage was being viewed, it probably wasn’t being done on site here. Was anyone at all watching the footage? He had heard of fake cameras being hung up for appearance’s sake, but weren’t these a little too subtle for that? Too small? Fakes were supposed to be larger and immediately noticeable.

The next intersection. The street to the left returned to the entrance, the one straight ahead followed the course of the wall. The Nahoon was much louder here. Not a large river, perhaps twenty meters across. Normally not very deep, especially now in the hottest part of the summer. A voice called out something. Beyond the wall. A fisherman maybe.

Wow, Moses stopped. He hadn’t been wrong after all. Here was another mailbox that looked like a miniature house, exactly like the other one. These were probably sold in some building supply store. His memory hadn’t failed him.

And this was finally the house he’d been trying to find. He was completely sure this time. He remembered those funny red and green curtains. “Brought from Europe!” his classmate had said. He had probably even mentioned the country. Moses walked up to the door, quickly scanned the area around him, and pressed the doorbell. It produced a high-pitched tone that dwindled to a screech. The battery was pretty much shot. Moses waited a few seconds before ringing the bell again. The skewed tone again. This could mean any number of things. The Boers were pretty lazy, generally speaking. The battery might have already spent several weeks on the shopping list, but kept being forgotten. Or the new battery had been bought days ago, but since nobody ever rang the bell, it just hadn’t been installed. Anything was possible.

But, Moses thought, another possibility was that nobody had been living here for some time.

Focus. If he couldn’t get help here, where should he go?

The lounge and kitchen formed an elongated L. The large room this side of the front door took up almost half of the house’s footprint. Two bedrooms and a bathroom behind that. At the very least, maybe more than that. Somewhere was the connector to the garage.

“Are you going to do this area?” Thembinkosi asked. “I’ll take the small rooms.”

Nozipho nodded. Thembinkosi studied the furniture for a few seconds. A living room suite in corduroy with a tiled coffee table. A dusty wine rack, almost empty. CD rack, gigantic TV screen. A photo of a young couple on a console table. He with a beard, she with long curls. Both kind of blonde.

“Are they the ones you saw?” he asked.

Nozipho leaned closer. “I told you I saw two men. Did one of them have a beard? Psh, hard to say. Somehow…”

“I know. Somehow they all look alike.”

“White people?”

“Uh-huh…”

Nozipho and Thembinkosi exchanged glances, grinned. Nozipho gave Thembinkosi a quick kiss and vanished into the kitchen.

No books, Thembinkosi thought. Bad sign. Books indicated expendable income, more cash around, though less jewelry. But there might still be one or two small treasures. He already suspected what he would find in the closets. First and foremost, bad taste.

The first door he opened was to a large bedroom. The bed had been poorly made. On the nightstand, a pink clock on the one side, a small rugby trophy on the other. He didn’t care about stuff like this. He would rummage around in Madam’s lingerie a little later. He shut the door and turned the knob on the door across the hall. The second bedroom. Unused. That did interest him.

But there might still be one or two small treasures. He already suspected what he would find in the closets. First and foremost, bad taste.

As Thembinkosi stepped over the threshold, he caught a glimpse of a smudge on the doorframe. He bent down to examine it more closely. He wasn’t completely sure, and this was a rather dark spot in the hallway… However, his first impression was that he was looking at dried blood.

Back out again? What else. Moses retraced his footsteps. What other options did he have? There was no way he’d find help here in the gated community. “Hello, do you happen to know how to fix a car?”

Although… he could ask the gardener. Perhaps he would know of someone, or might at least let him make a phone call if he had some free minutes on his account. He was already back at the intersection where he’d seen the gardener. But what if the failing doorbell really hadn’t meant anything? Maybe nobody had gotten around to it yet. It might not be a priority for them. Had he really paid enough attention to verify that there were absolutely no signs that someone was living there? He hadn’t been thorough enough. He should have taken a look inside the mailbox. Were the flowers in the front yard dried out? Were there any flowers at all? What if all of that didn’t mean anything, and Japie or Janie was about to get home? He could hear the sound of an engine not too far off. That might be him. On a parallel street. Just one more time, Moses told himself. One last try to get help there. The gardener was nowhere in sight anyway. He turned around and went back.

Already 1:16. What was Sandi doing? Hopefully, she was at least getting a little worried about him. Half the bottle of prosecco should have been drunk by now. And they should be… He didn’t want to think about that.

Back down the street along the wall, then to the left. There was the house. No flowers. The lawn was dry, but then again, it was really hot and had been for weeks. Moses rubbed his forehead and neck, wiping the sweat on his jeans. He couldn’t hear the car anymore. The windows weren’t all that clean. He pressed his nose against one to see inside.

The kitchen, neat. Nothing striking. The mailbox was empty, except for two ads. A building supply store and a chain drugstore, both fairly new. Somebody had recently picked up the mail.

No Janie. No Japie. Moses turned around. So out of the subdivision after all? What should he do then? Stand out by the road and wait? There weren’t many taxis around here, so it could take some time. But it would be one way he could get to a shop. The taxi driver might be able to recommend one. Money wasn’t a problem. He had several hundred in his pocket.

Or should he wait until someone stopped to help him? Super idea. He was stuck between Abbotsford and Dorchester Heights, two suburbs where pretty much only whites lived. Sure, they’d be willing to stop to help a young black man.

Walking it was then. That was okay, too.

A white man appeared at the corner he had just rounded. Sturdy, but not stout. Shorts, t-shirt. Looked like a rugby referee. Better not to cross his path. Moses turned in the other direction. He needed to get out of here now and call Sandi. The gate would hopefully open automatically from the inside.

Somebody else was coming from the other direction. Shit, a guard. And another white man. A white man in a security uniform always meant trouble. White trash despair. He looked around. The referee was getting closer, his hand hidden behind his back. The thought that he should run flashed through Moses’ mind, he might have even winced a little. After a brief hesitation, the referee flinched back a step. He’d been waiting for something like this. Run or not run? He was in better shape than both of them. But where? Where could he run to escape? Did he really need to escape?

He could already make out the grin on the referee’s face. Focus. The guard was swinging a club in his hand. The referee now pulled his hand from behind his back. Wow! What was that? A pistol? There was no way he’d use that.

Both of them had slowed down. The referee was still grinning. Thin mustache over his upper lip. The guard looked very, very grim. Bristly short hair, a just-as bristly beard around his chin and mouth. Moses realized that his uniform wasn’t actually a uniform, just plain black clothing, shirt and shorts. Both of them would reach him in about twenty meters. There wasn’t much time for Moses to make a decision. Fifteen meters now, twelve, ten. Only a few steps remained between him and the two men. As if in agreement, both men slowed down even more. He wanted to run, but he hesitated. The men both came to a stop in unison. About five meters away from him, possibly less.

Why do I feel so numb? Moses wondered. He hadn’t done anything.

“Are you lost or something?” The referee. What was he dangling in his hand? Wasn’t a pistol, but what was it?

“You’re a long way from home, boy!” The one with the club.

“What should we do with you now?” The referee.

“Should we teach him a lesson?” The other man swung the club solidly into the palm of his other hand.

“Whoa, whoa…” Moses said, raising both hands in front of his chest as a sign that he meant no harm. “I just wanted to visit a friend. Where’s the problem?”

“Hm, a friend.” The club was now being tapped rhythmically against the other hand. Thud, thud, thud.

“There’s no way somebody like you has a friend in here.” The referee.

“Do you think he’s the one?” The club now gripped in both hands.

Moses had seen the thing the referee was holding in his hand only once before. It was a taser, operated by electrical shocks. Or something like that. Could knock you out. Or even kill you.

“Okay,” he said. “You win. What should I do?” He kept his hands up where they could see them.

“Look at that,” the referee said. “The boy knows how to behave himself.”

“Yes, as long as he sees no way out!” The one with the club. “Now get on your knees, hands behind your head.”

“Okay,” Moses said. “Right away.”

He tensed his muscles for a moment, braced one foot a few centimeters behind the other. Took a deep breath. And took off. Toward the wall, past one of the houses, and back in the direction from which he had come.

“Hey!” he heard behind him. Followed by the sound of the two men also beginning to run.

For one very brief moment, it occurred to him that he had just made a serious mistake. But what other choice did he have? Bastards.

Moses kept running.

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From THE WALL. Used with the permission of the publisher, Catalyst Press. Copyright © 2019 by Max Annas. Translation copyright © 2019 by Rachel Hildebrandt Reynolds. 




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