When She Opened Her Eyes Part 1

CHAPTER ONE

Bed in the dew

When she opened her eyes, the first sight that greeted her eyes was rough, muddy brown fur of animal skin. It felt like a dream; images swam through her mind as she felt an overpowering urge to close her eyes once more. However, she had an even stronger instinct that this wasn’t the time to shut those eyelids. With a movement that seemed to cost her all the energy remaining within her body, she lifted her head and opened her eyes wider. This time she was able to comprehend her surroundings; she saw the muddy brown fur move.

It was the lower part of an animal leg. Then she heard the snort. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized she was lying on her back, half paralyzed on the damp undergrowth next to a grazing wild animal. It was—

Sniff, sniff, sniff…

Warm breath blew her exposed right leg. Suddenly alert, she gathered all her willpower and jolted herself to concentration. Letting her eyes travel up the furry leg, and finally coming to rest on a huge dark belly, she noted with a mixture of relief and despair that the animal sniffing on her was shielding her eyes from the bright 10 o’clock tropical sun.

Her heart thumping, she lowered her head back to the wet ground and squeezed her eyes shut. She was trying her level best to stifle a scream that kept welling up in her and threatened to escape her lips any moment. The animal moved and stepped closer to her face.

“Sniff, sniff, sniff—”

God, please make it go! Please God, do anything to me but please make the brute walk away ….

Right then, she heard the sound of hundreds of hooves racing somewhere beyond the thickets. Like a wave driven by the wind, the sound came closer and then retreated into the distance as the distress cry of zebras sounded shrilly in the background. The sound was rhythmic and urgent; something had triggered a stampede. Whatever that was, it could only mean that the grass-eaters were fleeing from the big cats. Before she could make sense of it all, there came a deafening crash as bushes cracked and snapped before revealing the huge menacing figure of the male buffalo: this time coming in top speed toward where she sat. Somehow, the bovine seemed to have come to its wild senses, and was now closing in to carry out its monstrous mission. She stayed put, terrorized to the core, shaking like a straw in the storm and anticipating the brute to grind her to pulp any moment ….

Four short steps away from her, the animal braked hard, swayed its head to the side and crashed to the ground. When it ceased to kick and twitch, Natty then saw the thick arrow embedded behind its ear: someone had shot the buffalo right before it reached her.

Soft rustling of leaves made her turn her head again, and she almost lost her mind when she saw who had saved her life: a huge black man stood with a bow in his hand. Strapped on his shoulder was a deep leather pouch that carried the poison arrows. His face had a grim expression, his muscular hands remarkably built, dangling from her sides like beams. A multicolored garment was tied around his waist. In his left hand he bore a sharp dagger. He stood towering above her, her small black eyes sharply studying her face.

Slowly, the man started walking towards her.

This made her so afraid that tears blurred her vision. What was he going to do to her? Had he saved her from the animal only to take advantage of her immobility? Evidently, he was a savage whose one intention was to assault her—maybe even kidnap her.

Before she could gather energy to scream, the man bent forward and held her firmly by the shoulders. She caught sight of his blurred face stooping over her, his massive arms outstretched towards her, before she slipped into unconsciousness.

Bed on the dung

When she opened her eyes—once more—she didn’t see the sky this time; instead, all she saw was a dark rough ceiling covered in soot. So there was a cave somewhere after all. When she moved her hands, her fingers encountered … animal fur! What was it today with animals and fur? Then she realized she was lying on an animal skin spread on the dirt floor. Supporting herself on her shoulders, she lifted her face to survey her surroundings, and was shocked to find herself in a … neat-looking cave; the floor and walls seemed to be plastered with a mixture of clay and cow-dung. A few gourds lay in one corner; there was a fireplace in the center of the ‘room’ comprising of the obvious triangle of three stones, dying embers and half burned twigs. Several dried animal hides were piled against the wall; these served either as clothing or beddings for the natives.

A man whom Natty recognized as the one she had seen in the forest earlier entered the cave followed by another younger man who had soft eyes and a prominent smile. He had a bright red cloak wrapped around him.

The huge man faced the younger one and said talked to him briefly in his language.

The younger man looked at Natty and smiled. “Good morning Madam,” he said in heavily accented English. “I am Jack Omar, I came to assist with translation for Lodochario.” Lodochario had to be the big man.

Natty felt weak with relief. Thank God, somewhere in this strange bush was someone who could talk English.

“Thank you, Omar and … Lodochario. Tell me please … what happened? ”

The two men looked at one another and then at her. Omar lifted his shoulders.

“You must have come from the plane that crashed in Tanzania,” he said. “Lodochario carried you here after killing a buffalo that was about to attack you.”

So the plane had crashed! Well, that was inevitable; the control had been badly damaged in the shootout.

She looked at the big man and blushed with guilt. He had actually saved her life, while all she had done was to think of him as a savage. How prejudicial of her!

“Tell Lodochario I am so grateful for saving my life,” said Natty. “I would probably be dead were it not for him.”

Omar translated it to the big guy who nodded and smiled thinly, looking a bit embarrassed.

Natty’s mind was in turmoil. What had happened to the other guys?

“What else have you heard about the plane?” she asked, sitting up and trying to massage her thighs.

“We heard it on the radio … there were remains of one body which was badly burned.”

One body? That must have been the pilot, so the other three fellows had most likely escaped from the plane. Escaped or … dead. Planning to pull off a joint setup was one thing, finishing it sensibly was another; not without some of the members getting greedy and resorting to double-cross. None of them knew that she had overheard their conversation in that that room: they had been planning to act mischievous and run away with the cash. Well, that had ended up working against them! She had successfully managed to switch the backpack —

Suddenly, she froze. The backpack! She looked up and saw the two men staring curiously at her.

“My backpack … have you seen it?” there was a desperate tone in her voice.

“Uh … what would that be?” asked Omar, visibly confused.

“A bag … Please ask Lodochario whether he spotted a bag near where she found me, please.”

Omar translated it to the big man, replied, gesturing widely with his big arms. Omar smiled at Natty.

“You are using it as a pillow, Madam.”

She slowly removed the animal skin under her headrest and was so relieved to see her backpack lying close to her that she collapsed back on the floor. Gosh! Either these men hadn’t seen a banknote in their lives or they were the most honest fellows on the face of the planet.

“Thank you, my good honest man, I owe you a lot.” She said, amazed that the big man hadn’t run off with her bag even while she was unconscious. There was enough in that bag to make several people lose their lives. Where she came from, men didn’t just carry a helpless person to shelter and let a bag full of money lie around idle without helping themselves to it.

When Omar translated that, Lodochario smiled widely and bowed, touching his breast.

“We don’t take things that belong to women in our community. That would be a shame.” Omar explained.

Well, she thought, these guys are by no means primitive; we from the first world are the ones awfully primitive … and bestial sometimes.

“You seem to be great people. You know what is in the bag, don’t you?”

“He says it is a lot of money … He found out because some of it had fallen out of the bag but he placed back the stray notes.” He shrugged and waved to the bag.

“Anyway, it is typical of you white people to have such amounts of money.”

“No it’s not typical,” she said, smiling to herself. “There is a misconception that all white people have heaps of money.”

The two men stared blankly at her. “Well, don’t you?” asked Omar.

“Of course we don’t. Things aren’t always as they seem.”

Omar looked at her with concern. “Listen, Madam, I know you need to go to hospital. The nearest one is a dispensary, situated twenty-two kilometers from here. We don’t come across vehicles much this part of the country. Nevertheless, you can stay in our village with us while we try to treat your legs.”

She looked at the two men towering above her. Most of the time, she would have imagined it as dangerous to be in the African bush, wounded and helpless, only to end up holed in a cave with two natives. These two guys were more than gentlemen, but they were just being kind. She obviously needed the doctor, but right now it was not like she had an alternative.

“Thank you for your kindness, but I really need to be hospitalized. I could have damaged my backbone or something.”

Omar squatted beside her and looked at her. “Are you in pain?” he asked.

“No,” she replied, rising on one elbow. “I just feel numb from waist downwards.”

Omar looked at the big man and chatted with him for a moment and then turned back to her.

“Our medicine-women can try one week of treatment on you. Most likely, after that you might be able to move your legs again.”

“Really?” she asked with eyebrows raised. “And what kind of treatment would that be?”

“Hot compresses with special herbs,” said Omar. “Entire legs; waist to toes. Don’t be alarmed, we have experienced medicine-women skilled in that.”

Natty studied his eyes, amazed at how this man displayed such confidence in simple traditional medicine. One thing was obvious: she needed a doctor–probably a surgeon to look at her.

That aside, she was evidently in a fix. Sooner or later, a search would be conducted and she—or more importantly her money—would be discovered … she would be expected to answer questions of which she had no ready answers. A visit to the hospital would have the authorities breathing down her neck. On the other hand, if she escaped that, she might get arrested for being in a foreign country without papers. Either way, she had a good chance of ending up in the slammer. That left her with one solution only: stick with the natives. And pray that her legs get moving.

CHAPTER TWO

Young Years and the Loss

Natty Norman was born on a Christmas day in Alkmaar, 24 miles north of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to Ken Norman and Amanda Norman. When she was three years old, she and her parents relocated to the US where her father worked for an architectural firm in Kentucky known as Silver Façade Designers, while her mother got a job as a radio reporter and producer. Natty loved their new environment since she got to see her dad four days a week. She developed a keen interest in sports and later in her high school life, she excelled in tennis, scooping trophies every now and then with remarkable ease. What she loved most however was seeing her parents cheering her and giving her all the support she could ask for.

When she enrolled in a diploma course in philosophy, her father signed a contract with a South African company where he was to work for two months as a senior designer. He had a dream to launch his own project management consultancy firm in about a year after flying back to Kentucky; this would be the beginning of his long-anticipated break … finally, he would be able move his family into a better, comfortable home.

While he worked in South Africa, Natty lived with her mother near Bowling Green in a modest but pleasant house; his absence was strongly felt especially during the unusually quiet dinners for the whole autumn.

Socially, Natty was easy-going, friendly and charming. She had a fair number of male admirers in the school but she genuinely believed it was too early to get into romantic relationships; her dreams and aspirations came first. This was something most of her girl friends didn’t connect with, and the more she resisted the guys, the closer they inched, and the higher the pressure rose around her. It wasn’t usual to come across tall pretty girl who didn’t have a boyfriend. With a dense brown mane framing an attractive oval face, deep blue eyes with long eyelashes, a shapely, proportional nose; full sensual lips, a firm bust, slim waist, perfect hips and long attractive legs, Natty was the most sought-after girl by the entire college male fraternity.

Not that Natty had never had a crush for a man—indeed she had. She secretly over-admired Bill Georges, a tall, handsome and sturdy tennis player. Unfortunately, he discovered about her feelings and decided to take advantage of her: he had approached her one afternoon and asked her for a dinner date—this she accepted at once. So, he took her out to Green Leaf, a gaily-lit café right off the highway. She was inwardly excited but couldn’t dare show it.

That evening, he revealed his feelings to her; this news made her feel elated but she blushed deeply when she realized she couldn’t conceal her joy. The following few weeks, she lived a life of bliss in her own way: Bill was thoroughly charming and could certainly take care of a girl.

However it had ended too soon: she had concluded he was the wrong guy when she caught him in a locker room kissing her best friend just before a tennis match. She had stormed out of the building in a fury, got into a cab and went home; and instead of sobbing bitterly, she lay on the bed still, her eyes focused on the ceiling. She remained like that for a long time while Bill called her repeatedly but she let the phone ring. There was nothing else to talk about: he had taken advantage of her and now was time to wake up from her stupor. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy but this time round, she was prepared to fight against her emotions. So the following day, she decided to start a new life and forget her past and all her fantasies: she quit the tennis team and switched her mind back to academic studies.

Days rolled on and the day when Natty was to graduate came. She was excited since her father would be there with her: he was flying back home from South Africa that same day.

It was half past nine in the morning when her mother called her from the airport and informed her that her dad had arrived. By that time, Natty was in school preparing for the graduation ceremony, happy because both her parents would be here with her shortly. As fate would have it, that didn’t quite happen.

Natty’s parents were driving along Fairway Street, and Amanda–Natty’s mother–had to make a stop next to a Pizza Restaurant since she had to pick a small case left behind by the mother of one of Natty’s classmates. Since there was no time to drive into the restaurant’s parking area, she pulled over on the curb and rushed across the street towards the restaurant but she had barely reached the entrance when a loud bang from the street stopped her short, prompting her to turn around violently. What greeted her eyes was sheer horror: her car was mangled and reduced to terribly misshaped scrap–with Ben, her husband, inside. Her jaw dropped and for a moment; she remained still, and then a shrill scream escaped her throat. She ran to the scene and found that actually, a black van had crashed into her car, and both vehicles were badly mangled. Beer cans from the van were sprawled all over the road; blood trickled down the front of the van: the driver was dead.

Amanda couldn’t contain herself. She screamed repeatedly, kneeling and bending, trying to locate her husband. Shortly, the scene was crowded as people volunteered to help; ambulances and police vehicles were all over the place but Amanda was too confused to comprehend what was going on. She felt arms clutch her, somebody trying to sooth her … a breakdown truck was tugging at the intertwined wreckage of the two vehicles ….

Then she saw the body of her husband being carried into one of the police vehicles. She was about to shout out his name before she slipped unconsciousness.

Turning Point

It was four months after the death of her father when Natty stood in front of her bathroom mirror and looked at her reflection. The dark circles under her eyes were still visible though faint. She was not yet—nor would she be—over the death of her father. For the past four months, neither she nor her mother did much. Neither went to work, neither spoke much. Hearts were damaged and all they could do was grieve.

Natty sighed. This, she assured herself, was the time for a change. She didn’t expect her mother—nor herself either— to recover anytime soon from their loss, but she had to be strong for her mother. She was the one who was younger and more energetic but no matter how much she grieved, she couldn’t let her mother go through any more stress, so she decided to cheer up.

Beginning that day, she worked as hard as she could to try and cheer her mother up; she accompanied her for shopping, went for walks, visited friends together and attended counselling sessions together. Slowly by slowly her mother became more and more relaxed and peaceful until one day, Natty convinced herself that her mother could now live with the death of her husband. It seemed strange but the process had benefited Natty too; she could now reflect back on the tragedy with a contained and relaxed mind. Now, the family could quietly readjust to cope with the void left and ultimately, some decisions would have to be made.

“Nat dear, it’s time you went on with your life,” said Amanda one morning during breakfast at home.

“Don’t you worry about me, Mom.”

“Listen dear,” said her mother, looking at Natty over her spectacles,

“You have been my pillar of strength these past months and the best gift I can give you is to let you spread your wings.”

Natty toyed a bit with her fork. “Mom! If you are thinking that I’ve been aching to get away from you and—”

“I know, dear,” Amanda interrupted firmly but softly. “I know you want to remain with me, but look at yourself: you are young and full of life. It’s time you embarked on the venture of your life! That is what will make me happy.”

Natty hesitated and looked at her mother for a moment. She was cutting a lemon into two. A woman approaching forty-eight, her hands were steady and although there was a tired shade in her deep-blue eyes, she had gained a considerable amount of strength over the past few weeks.

“Are you sure you will be alright, Mom?”

“If ‘alright’ means no longer sad because of your father, no, I won’t be alright,” she said as she poured water into a glass. “But if ‘alright’ means no longer feeling helpless, abandoned and neglected and unloved, then you definitely bet I will be alright.”

Natty rose, walked around the table and hugged her mother tight.

“Oh Mom, poor Mom; how did you learn to be so strong?”

Amanda laughed. “That, child, is a lesson that life gives you free of charge.”

“Can’t you share a bit of it with me now? It’s too boring to wait for years to pass will life teaches me bit by bit.”

Amanda held her daughter’s hand and motioned her to the table.

“Then sit down,” she said. “I’ll share one of life’s little secrets: never wait or grow tired till your castle is built to completion.” Natty smiled at her mother. “Now I can see where I inherited my philosophy genes!”

“That goes without saying, of course,” replied Amanda, wiping her mouth.

“I don’t know, Mom,” said Natty, picking a pineapple piece with her fork. “I am not yet sure which castle to go for.”

“Perhaps it is tennis?”

“No, Mom. I feel differently: I want to reach out, to engage, to … lecture.”

“Lecture? You are sure you want to become a teacher?”

“Yes, Mom, I’ll be a lecturer; I’ll start looking around as soon as today.”

Her mother shrugged and spread out her hands. “Fine! Let’s build ourselves a castle.”

After that talk, Natty started to get a hold of herself; she was determined to land herself a job. Two days later, when her mother was out shopping, the manager of Groter Bouwers S.A—the South African company where her dad used to work—called to ask after her and her mother. They had a brief conversation where she relayed to him of how she was looking for a job. To her surprise, he informed her that there was a university in Cape Town which was taking in new lecturers over the coming spring; and since her father had done some several projects for them, they would surely consider hiring her. Suddenly, a light bulb went on over her head. What if she went to work overseas? That would really be great!

Her mother supported her idea. She insisted that Natty follow her dreams, since she was resuming radio production herself. To add flavor to the issue, Silver Façade Designers, her dad’s former employers, mobilized a funding initiative for her and by the beginning of spring, one year after the death of her father, she flew to South Africa and got the job in the university as a lecturer. There, she braced herself to try and have a new experience in an exciting new land.

Vague Mission

Life as lecturer in an African University was more fun than she had imagined. She had smooth days and felt like the students generally enjoyed her lectures immensely. Groter Bouwers S.A took care of housing her and her overall life started to brighten.

She had worked in the university for 3 months when she received a call that her mother was critically ill and bed-ridden, so she had to fly back to Europe. When she entered the hospital and saw her mother lying still and motionless on the bed, she became so scared and feared her mom could be already dead that she began to cry.

“Don’t cry, child.”

She opened her eyes wide and stared at her mother, and was overjoyed to realize her mom wasn’t dead. She embraced her and clutched her hand.

“Thank God, Mom. I am here now, I won’t leave you…”

“No, Sweetie,” replied her mom, her eyes half-closed. “You have to return there…”

“Mom!” Natty said sharply. “Nothing can make me leave you! I’ll hang around till you are better and then we will go home, okay?”

“I might not make it. Listen, Nat, my heart is failing…”

What? How could this be happening to her mother? One year after her Dad, now this?

She gripped her mother’s dry hand tight and leaned forward.

“No, Mom! You will be fine! Believe me; you will be better in no time!”

Her mother waved her pleas aside with a frail arm. “Listen to me please, my dear. We are wasting time. You have to go back to South Africa … and look for Job Haghen. Find him and give him your phone … so I can talk to him …do not let that company Groter Bouwers know this … Your … Dad made me promise I would do it, so please Nat, go now. Fetch a snap in your father’s document wallet and take it with you … go now … before I d—”

The exhaustion from that talk made her collapse back on the bed and pass out. Just then, a doctor entered the room and ordered Natty to go out in order to let her mother rest. She picked her coat and purse and went out into the waiting bay, her vision blurred with tears.

What was she going to do now? Was she supposed to do as her mother pleaded: go, board a plane and fly back to hunt for this strange man; or should she stay on and accompany her mother till she recovered? If she traveled, would she see her mother again? If she remained here, what would happen if her Mom never opened her eyes again?

She looked at her watch. Could she catch a plane now? Well, she knew it was possible to fly back especially being Norman’s daughter. Blue Fishers Aviation, a small private air charter service company flew to and from South Africa every week; and they would surely take her in any day.

She fished out her phone and dialed a number.

“Good evening Mr. Kyle.” She said, forcing her voice to sound as stable as she could. “This is Natty Norman …” She listened impatiently to the man cooing gaily at the other end of the line. Well, she was in no mood of pleasantries so she got to the point and went on to book an emergency flight to South Africa that same evening.

She definitely had to go.

It was 19.00hrs when the plane lifted off the runway and roared its way into the dark sky. Natty’s mind was dark as thoughts criss-crossed inside her, making her feel half dizzy. Gritting her teeth, she willed the plane to move faster; all she could think of was the face of her mother, staring blankly at her with half-seeing eyes … how could such brutal fate befall her mother, Natty’s only pillar of strength for all these years? Well, she said to herself, stuff happens. Nevertheless, she wished her mom would let her help her to get acceptable and beneficial medical care … heart surgery … anything. To make matters worse, she was on a mission to look for an unknown man, and Mr. Abraham of Groter Bouwers—the only man who could help her, was not supposed to be consulted. Yet, she was willing to go through it all for the sake of her mother; she couldn’t bear to see her suffer any more than she already was. Natty was still in a clouded state of mind when she drifted off into nervous uneasy sleep.

It was Thursday, first of July. Holding the handle of her traveling case firmly and dragging it behind her, she entered the reception hall of the Hotel Interglot and paid for a middle-class suite. It was a neat, self-contained joint and well furnished. Heading for the bathroom, she filled the bathtub with warm water and got in: she needed to take the tiredness out of her system before starting an investigation of which she has no idea how to start. All she knew was that that was the plea of her mother while she had strength enough talk a few words. So she anticipated to sleep for one hour before getting up to start looking for clues.

Around 10.00hrs, Natty woke up, called room service and asked for the city directory. When it was brought to her a few minutes later, she sat on the table and scanned through the pages patiently. There was no Job Haghen. That was to be expected, however: chances of everyone being recorded in the directory in Africa were slim. She lifted her chin and stared at the opposite room blankly. How on earth was he supposed to find a needle in a haystack? Picking her phone, she put a call through to Tim Jayden, the vice-chancellor of Stabiel University. A halting, cheerful voice answered.

“Mr. Jayden? This is Natty calling from Interglot. I need your help—”

“Well, well, Miss Norman, how is your mother? And what are you doing in Interglot?”

“She is doing fine,” she lied. “I am working on some urgent family business.”

“How can I help you?”

“I was wondering if you would know; my father came into contact with a certain Job Hughen whom I have to trace ASAP, but I can’t. Would you know anyone by that name who might have been familiar to Dad?”

Natty had the slightest feeling that he heard Jayden draw in his breath sharply.

“What?” he asked, an edge in his voice. “No, I don’t know anyone by such name.” He added in hastily: “Miss Norman, I have to go now, someone is waiting for me. Talk to you later.” He then hung up. That was a bit odd, thought Natty. Jayden was behaving as if he didn’t want any mention of the name Job Haghen. Then she remembered:

…do not let that company Groter Bouwers know this …

Was Jayden affiliated to Groter Bouwers S.A.? Had she broken the first rule of her mother already? Natty went over to the bed and lay down some more, her mind blank. She fiddled with her phone for a few moments, and then sat up immediately as a thought struck her. Grabbing her phone once more, she dialed a number and waited for a few seconds, and then heard the familiar thick voice she was used to listen to daily in the university.

“Natty, that you? You are back so soon. How is your mother?”

“She is doing fine, Robert. Look, when can I see you outside the school? I am in hotel. I seriously need to talk to you.”

“Is that right? Well, let me see …” Robert paused for a moment, and then his voice came up again: “I will be busy until three; if you tell me where you are, I will come to you.”

She gave him her location and hung up.

Robert Bhekifa was a tall, dark and cheerful Science professor who hailed from the Zulu community. He was the best of all Natty’s friends in South Africa and had been the one who welcomed her to the university when she first set foot there, unsure of her new environment. Robert was a simple, sociable guy with a good sense of humor. Sitting across the table in the restaurant, he sipped his coffee and studied Natty’s face anxiously.

“Something is certainly bothering you, isn’t it?”

“I won’t deny that,” she said and sighed. “Thank you for coming, however.”

Robert raised his thick eyebrows. “Let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we?”

Natty held her mug in both hands. Outside, clouds were gathering; it was going to be chilly.

“I need to find a man known as Job Hughen. I don’t know who he is; all I know is that he was somehow connected to my father. I understand that that info is a bit too vague, but that’s all I know. My mom desperately wants to talk with him on the phone before she … she…” she halted, fighting back involuntary tears.

Robert reached out and patted her hand.

“Hush, Nat; your mom is going to be alright. You will see,” he said soothingly.

“Thanks; I keep telling myself that but I can’t convince myself. I need to transfer her to the right hospital but she wanted me to come out here for this blind hunt.”

“I understand. But … why don’t you start with the company?”

She waved with exasperation. “I can’t! Mom warned me to keep it from them. I had thought Jayden would help me but after calling him, I have a feeling that he doesn’t want to be involved with the matter. I wonder what on earth is going on!”

Robert was silent for a while, his dark eyes distant with thought. Natty sat back and looked at him.

“You are the only one I can trust,” she said. “Will you help me?” He looked at her and smiled, exposing a set of milk-white teeth. “Of course, Natty; you know you don’t have to ask. Problem is, I hardly know what I can do to help in such a case.”

“Try to remember: you may have heard the name before … somewhere … anywhere.”

“I wouldn’t say I have; but …” his voice trailed off. He sipped more coffee, wiped his mouth and grinned at Natty.

“Maybe we can try to extract information from one of the workers who aren’t attached to the company, but were there during your dad’s time.” He offered, raising his eyebrows in a wide grin.

Natty’s mind suddenly cleared. “That sounds clever, Robert, thank you! But—where do we start?”

He produced his phone and searched for a number. When he got it, he looked at her closely.

“We will give it a try, Nat. Look, I know a certain lady who used to be a secretary in Groter; I could call her and enquire casually without exposing anything.”

Natty could begin to feel some hope welling up in her. “That would be great! I knew I could count on you!”

“I wouldn’t celebrate yet. Jane gets mood flares, especially when she can’t find her cat,” he said and chuckled. “Let’s hope this isn’t one of those times.”

He dialed the girl’s number, waited for a while and changing the pitch of his voice, talked with all the charm he could muster.

“Hey there darling! How are you this splendid grey afternoon?” Natty overheard a steady flow of speech over the line, rising and falling in pitch. He watched Robert distance the phone from his ear, making a face and winking at her.

“Yeah, I know that, Baby, honestly I do! I’ll explain more later.

Careful with that varnish, it might crack your cute nails … Hey, Jane, can I ask you something?”

He glanced around the restaurant and lowered his voice. “I have a buddy who can’t track a friend who seemingly used to work in Groter Bauwer around May last year… His name was … uh … Ba… eh … Bl… damn it, I can’t remember the name for the life of me! Would you be so kind as to mention a few names of Mr. Norman’s employees? I might get a clue. Yes, please.”

He waited some more, took out a pen and paper and jotted down a few names; then excitedly, replied: “Yes, that’s the one! Would you remember his address by any chance? … Oh, okay. That was awesome of you, I owe you a dinner… No, no, sooner than that… thanks a lot honey, see ya ’round!”

After that, he hung up and looked at Natty who was getting excited.

“He was a casual worker for your Dad. Casual workers’ contact details were not stored in the company’s records, however. Nevertheless, she has given a fair description of him: short, thickset and graying at the temples; bald patch, wears horn-rimmed specs and limps slightly. And … oh, around forty or so.”

“Wow, that was superb, Robert!” said Natty, feeling her heart lighten for the first time in a few days. “At least we know who he was.” Robert didn’t answer. His eyes were focused somewhere behind her. She turned to look.

A few feet behind her, there was a wall separating the dining area from the bar; its lower part was made of marble while the upper part was a semi-translucent, bluish glass. A figure of a man sat over the other side of the wall in the bar, and his head seemed to be turned in their direction.

“I have a feeling that whoever is sitting there is watching us,” he said with visible concern. Natty felt a chill crawl up her spine.

“So soon?” she whispered. “Tailing us so soon?”

“It is possible,” he said, “That Haghen might be important to the Groter company; or maybe he knows some dirty secrets which they would like to bury.”

“Possible, but maybe not,” she said thoughtfully. “Dad asked mom—before he died—to look for him and have a certain conversion with him. The Groter people were not to find out. That shows one thing: Haghen has something they need, something that my Dad wanted Mom to know. This is getting so complicated!”

“You could be right, Nat,” Robert said and glanced at his watch.

“Listen, I have a class at four. I’ll have to leave now. Promise you will be careful?”

“Yes I’ll be, and thank you so much for helping me. Hope this thing will clear up before Mother succumbs to heart failure.”

“It won’t reach level, my dear. Look, I suggest you leave first; if that guy attempts to follow you, I will find out and alert you. Okay?”

“Okay,” she leaned forward and kissed his cheek, picked her purse and went out of the restaurant. As she walked out, Robert marveled at her elegant curves and whistled to himself.

“Whew! Some dish, isn’t she?” he said to himself, took the napkin and wiped his lips. Too bad the doll was so sad. Any other day, he would come up with an idea or two, he mused silently.

Mind-Boggling Evening

Natty opened the door of her suite and stopped short, shocked by the sight that greeted her eyes. The contents of her bags—Duffle Bag and her travelling trolley bag—were sprawled all over the floor, clothes were scattered everywhere; the room looked utterly appalling.

She called room service. The slim tall man with a mustache came up and bowed stiffly. Natty gestured to the mess in the room and asked him how the bugler could have entered unnoticed. The attendant was so startled that his eyes popped out of their sockets. Apologizing profusely, he swore that the hotel couldn’t have been aware of that.

Natty sighed. She wasn’t getting anywhere with this man, so she dismissed him, and then took to the engaging task of re-arranging her personal effects. She worked for thirty good minutes before she was satisfied that everything was back in order; then went into the bathroom to take a shower.

Twenty minutes later, she was changing clothes when her phone rang. She picked it; it was Robert.

“Hey, Nat!” his voice sounded as cheerful as ever. “Seems like the guy in the restaurant wasn’t interested in either of us, after all. I wasn’t followed, and I am sure that—”

“They didn’t need to,” she retorted. “The bastards turned my room upside down. Took me ages to rearrange.”

“Gosh!” he exclaimed. “Anything missing?”

“Not a thing.”

“I guess you were right: they are looking for something particular. Listen, I don’t have any more lectures to give until Monday. How about we meet tomorrow?”

“That will be excellent, Robert,” she replied, bending to pick up her document wallet from the floor. Robert wished her a good evening and hung up.

She then put a call through to Kentucky; the doctor answered. Speaking softly, he informed her that her mother was showing signs of remarkable improvement. She told him to let her know when soonest she could talk with her, thanked her and then hung up.

Sitting on the small cream-colored couch, she turned over the document wallet in her hands, her mind absent; then opened it and fished out her mother’s photo. Looking fondly at it, she couldn’t help smiling back at her mother’s face; this reminded her of her tennis leagues when she was fifteen, when her mother would call her ‘dear pretty deer,’ and tease her lovingly: “the deer sprints to save her trophy!” This particular photo came from her father’s wallet.

She was about to put it back when she noticed some figures written at the back—seemingly hurriedly—with a ball-point pen:

Noita-Ni- 12 b-m-o545 Csa-h——–NE-3 HG-UH-h-61; Slim Arches, Front Elevation

- For Amanda

Just some architectural data, she thought, and then dropped the photo on her bedside cabinet.

Outside, a storm was raging violently. To keep herself warm, she switched on the TV and hopped into bed, rolled onto her side stared thoughtfully at the flickering screen. The news that her mother was indeed showing signs of recovery encouraged her; perhaps she would be able to have a conversation with her over the phone since she needed more information concerning this Hughen.

“Dad,” she said loudly, poor Dad; who was Hughen?”

Once more, she stared at the photo lying upside down on the small cabinet beside her; but this time at its reflection from the one-foot vertical mirror of the cabinet. Something struck her as odd. From the mirror, the capitalized letters stood out, prompting her concentration. NE-3 HG-UH-61 … what was it that seemed odd to her?

She lost interest and raised her eyes to look at an acapella choir performing on TV. Then suddenly, she turned to the mirror again: NE-3 HG-UH-61 was HUGH3E-N read backwards! Well, Did that mean “Hughen”? This discovery made her snatch the photo so fast that she almost toppled the cabinet over. Studying the photo once again, she could feel her heart beating aloud as excitement welled up in her chest. Try as hard as she could, she couldn’t make sense of the remaining data.

However, she had a persistent feeling that this was a message concerning Hughen that her Dad had left back, meant for her mother but coded to keep some people’s interest off.

“Dad,” she said aloud. “What is it are you trying to communicate?” She remained in that position for a long time, till the wall clock chimed seven; then called room service and ordered for a light dinner. After a quick meal, she sat on the couch and called the hospital in Kentucky once again. Doctor Kyle answered and this time, he had some encouraging news: she might possibly talk over the phone with her mother the following day. She thanked him and hung up the phone, feeling a big boost of confidence and hope. Once again, she took the small picture of her mother and looked at it fondly; her mother had a deep sense of trust in her. She believed her daughter was a thinker, and could handle complicated code and a manhunt. Well, Mom, she thought, you give me way too much credit.

Well, why not just try to wrestle with the code?

She took a pen and paper and attempted to write everything in the code backwards:

HUGH 3E-N———h-asC 545o-m-b 12-iN-atioN

It still refused to make sense. Dang it, she wouldn’t ever get anywhere! How she admired those smart investigators whom she had always watched on TV smartly solving complicated stuff! Well, she shrugged and sat back to look at the TV. Then she had an idea. Why not ignore the numerals for now and work with letters only? If nothing showed up, she’d have nothing to lose. She re-wrote the code again, this time a bit more keen, which came down to this:

HUGH E-N———h-asC o-m-b -iN-atioN …

Hughen has combination!

Of course! The extra words, “Slim Arches, Front Elevation” … S.A.F.E.? Natty’s heart was beating now. This was a message Dad had written to mimic architectural data.

Hughen has combination safe. 1-2-5-4-5-3-6-1-5-6; or the reverse, whichever worked: these numbers had to be combination code for some lock! It had to be! Hughen must be in possession of something valuable to her parents—not to forget some stalker too right here in this city.

Folding the paper she had drafted on, she put it in a purse which had a false bottom, and then sat back to watch an African football match.

Fortune of the Unfortunate

Much has been discussed about co-incidences and about whether they depict any special meaning besides being just that: random happenings that just occur for no reason at all. While others vehemently believe in them, that will continue to be a controversy.

That, however, wasn’t what Natty was thinking after experiencing a very weird co-incidence. That particular morning, the sun was shining brightly over the town suburbs. It was fairly warm; the air was full of insects and a few birds preying on them.

Natty had woken up in the mood for a walk. She wasn’t attracted by the pretty central business district so she opted to have a walk down the suburbs since she wanted to see how people lived in the low to middle class areas of Johannesburg. Krugersdorp was one such area.

Walking down a dirt road off Main Reef Road, she passed by a small grassy field where children gathered, happy and carefree. They played alongside a ditch full from last night’s rain, waving happily at Natty. She waved back and smiled at them: they were so innocent, dark-skinned and beautiful; with mud in their hands. Farther down the ditch, a group was doing a singing game, holding hands in a circle and jumping rhythmically as their young voices filled the humid air. The humble estate seemed really populated; there were more kids here than anywhere else she had seen before. She walked to where the group of children was playing and stopped.

“Hey white girl!” they called out and giggled. Natty smiled at them.

“Hey darlings; how are you today?” she said and knelt down among them.

They flocked around her, some touching her clothes, her hands and hair.

“Can we plait your hair? It’s beautiful,” said a little girl with a multi-colored tattered skirt talking excitedly.

“Of course, dear; that would be nice.”

The children surrounded her and started working on her hair with amazing speed and precision. In short twenty minutes, her long hair was braided in thin straight lines from scalp to her shoulders.

“Thank you dears! Wow!” she exclaimed, feeling her head with her fingers. “You are such fabulous artists!”

They looked up at her shyly, wringing their tiny hands. How nice it would be to work in Africa, with and for these kids! She could fund a school or start a program for the neglected—or anything close to that. She shelved the idea in the back of her mind for later consideration.

“What is your name?” asked one boy.

“I am Natty Norman. Call me Natty. What’s yours?”

“Dumisane. I am the prefect of my class!” he said, smiling widely.

“Oh, really? That’s great. Okay, come on kids, I’ll buy you some candy across the road. Follow me!”

“From Gramps Grocery?” asked the boy, frowning. “We don’t like that weird man. He keeps his head hooded and doesn’t like kids!”

Natty laughed. “Don’t worry, I am the one who will ask. Let’s go.”

The group of kids followed her across the road, chatting excitedly; and entered a small shabby grocery store facing the road. A faded legend hung above the door:

GRAMPS GROCERY—VEGETABLES AND CANDY

As soon as she knocked on the counter, a white bespectacled man came from the inner room into the shop, limping slightly, wearing a loose hooded gray jacket. The kids were right, he was weird-looking: he had a colorful piece of cloth wrapped around his head like a turban, giving him a Sheikh-like look. He had a long hooked nose over a thick gray mustache.

He halted, his keen suspicious eyes squinting from behind the glasses.

“How can I help you, Miss?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“Just a packet of candy for the kids, thank you,” she said while searching her purse for change.

Handing the man some coins, she took the packet and started distributing the sweets among the kids, who cheered and started gulping them down their throats.

“Thank you Miss Norman Thank you Natty!” they cried in unison, and then started to cross the road to resume with their games.

“You are … Natty Norman?” the shopkeeper asked. Natty could have sworn there was the slightest hint of urgency in the man’s voice. “You aren’t from South Africa, are you?”

“Definitely not from here,” she replied, turned and walked straight on alongside the brick-house settlement.

When she reached her room one hour later, she sat on the couch and just as she was about to call Robert, his phone rang. It was the doctor.

“Natty here doc, is my father alright?”

“She is doing well, Miss Norman. You may have a brief conversation now, but remember to keep it short, okay?” Natty said it would be alright. When her mother’s voice came over the line, it sounded tired and feeble.

“Natty … is that you? How’re you?”

“Mom, I am fine. How are you feeling?”

“I am okay … are you still looking for the man?” Her voice was low, close to a whisper.

“Yes I am. Mom, you didn’t give me much info to help me dig. Who is he and why should I look for him?”

“He was … he was …” she was now panting. “Just find him, dear; I have to talk to …”

“Mom! Mom? Are you there?”

The soft voice of the doctor came over the line but this time it was firm. “I am sorry, Miss Norman, your mother needs to rest.”

“Okay, doc. Please let me know when she feels better, and thanks.”

Natty hated these moments when she had difficult, painful conversations with her mother. She wished she could somehow relieve her of her suffering, even if it meant switching places with her. The only thing that she could do was pray to God that she finds this Hughen guy soon enough. How she could proceed was out of the scope of her thinking at the moment, and while she had Robert to help her, the next step in the investigation was still unclear to her. All she had was a description of the mystery man … she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to locate a man whom other shadowy men in the city were so keen to find as well—all with a vague description.

Then as if in a flash of lightning, an image occupied her mind: short thickset man limping slightly with a turban around his head and squinting eyes behind glasses.

She sat upright and stared at the opposite wall, her mind racing. The image of the man at the grocery store kept coming back to her, tugging her mind consistently.

You are … Natty Norman? You aren’t from South Africa, are you?

She had to return to Krugersdorp, but she had to make sure that she wasn’t being followed. If that man was Hughen, then no-one had to see them both. She looked at her watch: it was 10.30hrs. Robert would be free in twenty minutes, and she could use his help.

It was half past six in the evening when a tall, blond girl wearing heavy glasses came out of Hellen’s Lady-wear, a big clothes boutique near the edge of the city, clutching a brown leather bag in her hand. She was wearing a brown cotton blouse, a brown loose-fitting jacket, grey slacks and tall brown boots. She stopped, hailed a taxi and got in. Robert, peering from a window in a coffeehouse across the road, saw the taxi speed along the street and disappear from sight. Shifting his gaze back to the entrance of Hellen’s, he saw a man in a gray suit come out, look at both sides of the street and then his wrist-watch. His face showed impatience, annoyance and boredom. He stood for a few more seconds and then went back in the boutique. Satisfied that Natty wouldn’t be followed, he paid for his coffee and went out to the street and into his car.

As Natty approached the weather-beaten grocery store, she was aware of her heart beating hard. In her heart, she was praying fervently for luck to be on her side; the thought that her mother could die before this mystery was solved sent her mind spinning with panic. When she entered the grocery, the turbaned man was arranging onions on a shelf. He turned sharply and squinted at her, several onion bulbs in his hands.

“’Evening, ma’am,” he said hoarsely.

“Good evening, Job Hughen,” replied Natty, smiling and watching him closely.

The grocer was violently startled at that. He dropped his onions to the floor, and then instantly, his hand went below the counter and when it came out, it had a pistol gripped tightly and pointed towards Natty.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded, his lips shaking, his eyes shifting nervously. It seemed this man was scared out of his wits. Natty dropped her voice. “Oh, please do not be afraid of me; I was here in the morning with a group of kids, remember?” The Grocer peered at her anxiously; then seemed to recognize her.

“Natty Norman? Who are you and what do you want? And why are you disguised?”

“Take that gun out of sight, I want to show you something,” she said and put her fingers into the front pocket of her jacket. The man stared curiously at her, lowering the gun but still holding it tight and still aimed at her.

Natty handed a small photograph over to him. He grabbed it and squinted at it, and then his eyes opened wide. He put the gun out of sight and stared at her.

“You are Ken’s daughter?” he whispered unbelievingly.

“Yes, I am. I have been looking for you and although I met you by sheer chance, I later developed an instinct that you are the one I am looking for.”

He handed the photograph back to her; in it was her dad standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

“We need to talk, Gramps,” she said. “My mother is sick and may not live long.”

He stared at her for a moment, and then said hurriedly: “Sorry about that.” He opened a half-door under the counter and motioned her in. When she entered, he reached out, closed the main door and locked it. He then came back in, opened an inner door and shooed Natty in. Both of them came into a sparsely furnished room; in it was a small threadbare couch, a tiny table with a straight-backed chair. There was a TV at the corner and heaps of old books on a shelf at the old wall. “Sit down please,” he said as he removed his turban and tore off the fake mustache. Looking at him now, she could see that Robert’s earlier description fit him perfectly.

Natty removed her glasses and the blond wig and stuffed them into her bag.

“My mother told me to look for you and have converse with her using my phone; she didn’t give me any information other than not to let the Groter company find out. I am dying to find out why,” she said, smoothing her dark hair with her hands.

Hughen paused to light a cigarette. He let smoke drift from his nostrils slowly, staring at the smoldering end of his cigarette. Natty let him smoke for a while.

“You dad struck a fortune in form of diamonds,” he said squinting at her. “He and I hid it in a safe.”

“What!” she asked incredulously. “Fortune … what are you talking about?”

Hughen sucked on his cigarette for a while, and then stared fixedly at Natty. “You heard me right. He had to fly in order to attend your graduation; then return so that we may proceed with the sale.”

Natty’s mind was in a haze. She had too many questions yet didn’t know how to ask them.

“If you unearthed a fortune as you say, why are you still here, holed up in this dump instead of being filthy rich?”

He paused and put out his cigarette, and then continued. “Only he had the combination code. Your father was an honest man, and the only way I can repay him is by conducting things the way he would have wanted. I have been waiting for you all this time and I don’t know why you took one whole year! I have been living in hiding because the big guys in Groter Bouwers are interested in the stones; they would sell their own souls to the devil for the diamonds.”

Natty frowned, doubts echoing in the empty rooms of her mind. “How—and where—did you find those stones?” she asked.

“It’s a long story, and tonight is not the most suitable to tell you the details … but in brief, your father was contracted by a certain Daniel King to help propose renovations for his house. I was helping him one day, moving old furniture in the cellar. Working a few meters away from me, he was looking at the floorboards when he found a cleverly-cut cubic hole, covered in a way a common person wouldn’t have realized. When he forced it open, he found a small bag full of diamonds. From the look of it, those stones must have been sitting there for the last century or so. We later found out that the house had once belonged to a certain Edmond—who was the grandson of a rich man who used to mine diamonds two hundred years ago. It seems none of his generations knew of those hidden stones.

“Now this Daniel King happens to be a businessman, but it’s rumored he is a drug peddler. Not exactly the kind of man you can surrender the diamonds to, no matter how honest you may be.”

“The Groter company…?” she asked. “How did they get involved?”

“Chris, a fellow worker, overheard us talking in the cellar and had to be brought in. We later realized he was a secret agent working for Abraham, employed to keep tabs on your dad. He reported it to Abraham.” Hughen leaned forward and spoke quietly, almost in a whisper:

“There is fifteen blasted million dollars worth of gems in that freaking bag!”

Natty felt a chill crawl up her spine.

Fifteen million!

She didn’t have the slightest idea of how he could handle such money. She was thoroughly confused by all this information but tried hard to jerk her attention to the present.

“Why did my mother insist on talking to you?” she asked.

“To give me the combination code, I guess? That is, if you don’t have it already,” he exposed cream-colored teeth in a foxy grin.

“If I had it, I wouldn’t have asked you all these questions, would I?”

Just then her phone rang. Just as he had hoped, it was the doctor. Her mother wanted to talk to her.

“Mom! How are you feeling? I found the man! I found Job Hughen!” she said excitedly. Her mother’s voice was unusually calm tonight. “Hello, Nattie. That is great. Is he near you? Please give him the phone now.”

“Okay, mom.” She took a moment to activate the phone’s loudspeaker before handing it over to Hughen.

“Hello, Mrs. Norman. Accept my heart-felt condolence for the loss of your husband,” he started. “I am also very sorry for your health problems, it my hope that you will recover soon! I have been waiting for this call for one year.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hughen. I meant to come there myself, but I fell sick, so I had to send my daughter. Now listen please: you will take her—and any other person or persons she chooses for her protection—to where the safe is hidden. She will open it and give you your share as you and my husband agreed. Can I trust you to co-operate, Mr. Hughen?”

“Definitely, Mrs. Norman!” he said hurriedly. “This has to be planned well since—”

“Thank you. Now give the phone back to my daughter,” she said curtly. Natty deactivated the loudspeaker and pressed the phone to her ear. “I am here, Mom.”

“Nattie? I am doing this because I promised it to your Father. Remember, be extra cautious with this! Do not over-trust anyone. Be safe my dear, if we get the money I can undergo further treatment…” her voice trailed off.

“Mom? Mother! Are you alright?”

“She needs to rest,” said the doctor’s voice firmly. “Good evening.”

Natty stood up. “Let’s meet here same time tomorrow. Be ready to move: we are getting out of this place to somewhere safer.”

Hughen looked at her with surprise visible in his eyes. “As you say, Ma’am.”

Natty nodded to him, opened the back door and went out into the darkness.

(… continued in Part 2) Next Part


Arts | Fiction | Short Stories


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