Excerpt From THE MONSTER’S DAUGHTER

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By Michelle Pretorius

Alet’s mind was still reeling from what Koch had told her as she pulled up to Mathebe’s house later that evening. It was on the other side of Unie, a solid brick building half-hidden from the street by a fence and a couple of oak trees. A gravel path snaked through the small garden to the front door. She shifted the six-pack of Black Labels to her left hand and rang the doorbell. A light went on above her head, the ornate glass and metal lampshade casting spotted golden shadows over the stoneinlay of the stoep.

A woman with short, stylish hair answered the door. “Good evening?”

Alet wondered if she had the right house. The fact that Mathebe didn’t live alone had never crossed her mind. “Hallo. I’m looking for Sergeant Mathebe? I work with him.”

The woman smiled, the corners of her big brown eyes crinkling. “Johannes is in.” Alet was fascinated by the liquid brown sheen of her skin. Her face was open and welcoming, her cheeks round, almost plump, a theme repeated by the rest of her body, the bold floral print of her dress accentuating every curve. “I am Miriam Mathebe.” She looked at Alet with expectation.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Alet realized that she was staring. “I’m Alet Berg. Constable Berg.” She lifted the six-pack. “I brought this.”

A brief crinkle crossed Miriam’s brow. She took the beer from Alet. “Thank you. Please, come in.”
Alet followed Miriam through a small kitchen, the remnants of a recent dinner still lingering in chakalaka and samp pots. Miriam left the beer on the kitchen counter. The hallway was lined with family portraits, a wedding picture of a slender Miriam and a boyish looking Mathebe, and a picture of Mathebe in uniform at his graduation ceremony, pride obvious in his smile. Alet had one that was almost identical.

In the living room, a young boy and a pre-pubescent girl were watching television.

“This is Baba’s friend from work,” Miriam said. “Constable Berg, this is Celiwe and Little Johannes.”

The children greeted her politely. Little Johannes’ eyes wandered back to the cartoons on the screen. He tugged at the bottom of his t-shirt revealing a bulging little boy belly.

“Time to get ready for bed now. Miriam patted Little Johannes on the back and turned the television off. “Celiwe, I’ll be along to ask your History in a moment.”

The girl sighed. Her eyes had the same droop as Mathebe’s, her hair braided into neat corn rows. Miriam raised a warning eyebrow and Celiwe nodded, following Little Johannes out of the room.

Miriam pulled the heavy living room curtains aside to reveal an open glass door. “Johannes is in the back, Constable Berg.”

Mathebe sat on a patio chair, coffee cup in hand. He looked up, a deep frown imbedding itself when he saw Alet. She suddenly felt nervous.

“Constable Berg. This is not expected.”

“Ja. Sorry.” Alet had thought about calling, but there was the chance that he wouldn’t give her the time of day. Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, she thought.

“Can I get you a refreshment before I put the children to bed, Constable Berg?”

“A beer would be great, Miriam,” Alet said. “And call me Alet.”

Mathebe gave his wife a questioning look.

“Alet was kind enough to bring refreshments.”

Alet smiled. “A peace offering.”

“Please sit,” Mathebe said. He handed Miriam his empty coffee cup. “I am not sure why you are here, Constable,” he said as soon as Miriam disappeared into the house.

“Well, I thought we could share a drink, maybe talk about the case.”

“I do not believe it concerns you anymore.”

“Look, Johannes, I know we don’t see eye to eye, but I need you to hear me out. Have one beer with me.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but Alet held her hand up. “One. That’s all I ask.”

Mathebe studied her face for a moment before he nodded. “I will give you that.”

Miriam appeared in the doorway with Alet’s beer and a fresh cup of coffee. “Please excuse me while I tend to the children.”

“Of course. Thank you.”

Alet twisted the cap off the beer bottle and took a sip. Mathebe stirred his coffee as methodically as he did everything else. He took a languid sip.

“You don’t like beer?” Alet knew Mathebe was a stiff, but she thought she could get him to loosen up before she dropped this bomb on him. “Must be the only policeman in the history of the force.”

“I prefer coffee.”

“Oh.” Alet took two large sips from the bottle. “It’s been a week, you know. I mean, since we found her.”

“Yes.”

“I know I’m supposed to stay out of it. That I fucked up.”

Mathebe pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair.

“Fok, messed up. Sorry. I don’t mean to… What I wanted to say, is that I am sorry. About going behind your back and not respecting your investigation.”

A light went on in one of the rooms of the house. Alet heard the muffled voice of Miriam quizzing Celiwe’s homework. She thought about the history exams she had to take in school, how the textbooks changed when the ANC came into power. A new history for the New South Africa. She wished that her own history could be changed that easily, her bad decisions erased with something as simple as a revised textbook.
Mathebe studied her, his expression unchanged. “I received a call from Oudtshoorn. Sergeant Maree. He wanted to let you know that he found a case that matched your criteria. The coroner had concluded that the victim was strangled before she was set on fire.”

“I’m sorry, Johannes, I –”

“You have continued investigating the case, Constable Berg. You come to my house, apologizing for going behind my back and yet, you are still going behind my back.”

“Please, just hear me out.”

Mathebe sighed. “Your beer is almost finished.”

“There is something very wrong, Johannes. I saw Prof. Koch today. He ran DNA on the body. Trudie Pienaar wasn’t white.”

There was a crack in Mathebe’s expression.

“Not in the sense that I’m white or you’re black, or April is coloured.”

“I don’t understand what you are trying to say, Constable. Was she Asian?”

“No.” Alet sighed. “So, Trudie looked normal, right? But there’s something different about her genes or something.”

Alet tried to remember exactly what Koch had told her that afternoon. They had met at the gardens near Parliament. Koch led her to a secluded area, away from the tourists. His lisp was so bad that she could barely keep up with what he was saying. She had to ask him to repeat most of it, not understanding any of the scientific gibberish. Once he dumbed it down for her, her mind simply refused to believe that it was true. Koch explained that humans share 99% of their genetic makeup with chimpanzees, but that it was that 1% that made all the difference. Trudie’s 1% looked different from other people’s.

“What exactly does that mean, Constable?” Mathebe was losing patience.

“It means that she wasn’t just a different race. Apparently this gene thing meant that she was… a different species.” Alet paused, watching a look of incredulity form on Mathebe’s face. “I know,” she said. “I’m having trouble with it too.”

“The victim was not human?” Mathebe’s coffee cup balanced at a precarious angle on his lap.

“Koch said it would have been like the difference between us and Neanderthals. They looked like ugly-ass humans, but they weren’t human at all. Because some part of their genes were different.”

Mathebe raised both eyebrows so high that they almost touched his hairline. “We do not have a case to solve then. The SAPS does not investigate the death of random animals. Only livestock. Was Mrs. Pienaar part cow or sheep, Constable?

Alet was taken aback. She wasn’t used to Mathebe being sarcastic. “Look, Johannes. I know this is hard to believe, but Koch is sure of the results.”

“How did she get here? A space ship, perhaps? Or did she one day decide to crawl out of a mud puddle?” Mathebe had a sneer on his lips.

“Listen to me, please? I don’t know what this means yet, but I think that we are dealing with something bigger than just one murder. It’s not just that murder in Oudtshoorn that was similar to the Pienaar murder. I’ve managed to find thirteen other murders across the country. All of them with the same MO. And there might be more.”

“Sergeant Maree said the murder in Oudtshoorn took place in 1958. Even if the killer was a teenager, he would be an old man by now.”

Alet sank back in her chair. “There are murders earlier than that. As far back as the forties.” Mathebe gave her a questioning look. “I have a friend at the University in Cape Town who has been helping me find them,” she said.

Mathebe’s nostrils flared. “Are you absolutely sure they are connected, Constable?”

Alet nodded. “I wouldn’t waste your time.”

“I have to speak to Captain Mynhardt.”

“No, please Johannes. He can’t know about any of this. Not yet.”

“He will know as soon as he receives Professor Koch’s findings.”

The faint call of a hyena sounded in the distance. Alet took a deep breath, considering the possibility of walking away. She got up from her chair. “Koch has agreed to keep that part out of it. His lab guy doesn’t even know. I think he wants to write some article or something on the discovery.”

“So why would he tell you?”

“I don’t know. He said something about needing access to the body so he could run more tests.”

“This still does not explain why the Captain has to be kept in the dark.”

“Mynhardt knows my father.”

“I am aware of this.”

Of course he was. Alet shifted her gaze to the glowing white cross on the hill that overlooked Unie. “Eight of the thirteen murders I found were investigated by my father. They called them the Angel killings.” Alet was afraid of making eye contact with Mathebe, of seeing the judgment there. The hyena cried out again, closer this time. She crossed her arms. “There were no suspects. It was the only case in my dad’s career he didn’t solve.”

“Your father is not infallible.”

“There’s more.” Alet bit her lip. She had received a call from Theo that morning after her meeting with Koch, linking the two case files she gave him with news reports and media coverage of other similar murders. Theo had to search for death certificates to confirm cause of death. “The case files went missing when my father transferred to Security Branch.”

Mathebe shook his head slowly. “A lot of files went missing in those years.”

“Those files were destroyed on purpose.”

“Files were destroyed so that government-sanctioned assassins could get away with murder, Constable. Were your victims activists?”

“They were all Afrikaner women, housewives, secretaries, prostitutes.”

Mathebe narrowed his eyes. “Why are you really here, Constable Berg?”

Alet steeled herself. “I have to know the truth.”

“And if you find that your father has something to do with these murders, that he protected a killer in exchange for a promotion? What will you do?”

“I don’t know.”

Mathebe took a moment before he spoke again. “Do you know what the date is, Constable?”

“What?”

“It is the sixteenth of December. Geloftedag – the day of the pledge. When the Voortrekkers made a pledge to God that they would always commemorate the day if he helped them beat the Zulu at the battle of Bloedrivier, because the blood of the savages stained the river red. A pact made in blood. The Afrikaner and God against the savages of this land.”

Alet frowned, uneasy with where this was heading. “Why the history lesson?”

“When I was a boy, we would watch the baas and his neighbors walk to church on this day, to celebrate their victory, to thank God and honor their ancestors. After, they would go home and feast and throw their leftovers to the dogs. It was that same baas who paid in cheap brandy to keep the workers drunk and under his thumb while he grew even fatter than his father before him. And the lower he pushed those savages, the more they drank to escape despair. I do not drink alcohol, Constable Berg. I do not allow it in my house. When I left my mother’s house, I swore I would never be controlled by the baas or the bottle like my father and his father. That I would never come home in a drunken stupor and beat my wife and my children because that was the only power I had. I worked hard to become a policeman. Because I wanted the power to change things. Because I wanted to give power to the people that were not chosen by God.”

Mathebe’s hands balled in his lap. “You are asking me to help you investigate a very powerful man.” He looked at the light in Celiwe’s room. “If this goes wrong, you will dust yourself off and say sorry, Pa. All will be forgiven for you, but I will not have that luxury. My family will not have that luxury. In this land it is still us against them.”

Alet picked up her empty beer bottle. “I’m sorry. I should have realized.” She headed for the garden gate, not wanting to disturb Miriam and the children. Mathebe was the straightest arrow she knew. If even he was scared, there was little hope of her finding anyone that would help her. “It’s not called that anymore, you know.” Alet’s hand rested on the garden gate. She turned to face Mathebe. “It’s called the Day of Reconciliation now.”

Mathebe didn’t answer. Alet marched back, going on her haunches next to his chair. “I will make a promise to you, Sergeant Mathebe. I will share everything I find from now on. If I don’t you can hand me over to Mynhardt on a silver platter. And if it turns out that my father is guilty, I will respect your decision on what to do with that information.” Alet waited, her heart catching in her throat. She felt nauseous, her understanding of the world thrown out of balance in a few short days. There was an uncertain future ahead of her, and she hoped that she had been right to trust Mathebe.

“I am in charge of this case.” Mathebe’s words came slow as molasses. “It is my duty to see it through. Give the victim justice, no matter who she was.”

“You will help then?”

“I will talk to the Captain to get you reinstated.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

“I am giving you until Boxing Day. After that I will hand everything we have over to the Captain.”

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060cropbwBorn and raised in South Africa, Michelle received a B.A. at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York, and the Midwest and holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. She is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at Ohio University. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, Arcturus, The Copperfield Review, and others. Her first novel, The Monster’s Daughter is published by Melville House and Audible. More information can be found at www.michellepretorius.com.

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