When She Opened Her Eyes Part 2

(…continued from Previous Part)

CHAPTER ONE

Hitting the Road

Natty entered the hotel building where she was lodging; this time wearing normally and out of disguise. She was sure that anyone keeping lenses—mechanical or human—pointed at her was in for a bad day.

As she entered her suite, her mind was creaking with thoughts. When she had left this room earlier in the afternoon, she had been unsure of what she would find in Hughen; worried and anxious. Now she was the owner of some shady diamonds left to her by her Dad, concealed in a sight that only Hughen knew. Somehow, this seemed too much for her to handle. Now she was even less sure, far more worried of tomorrow and even more anxious: Hughen might double-cross her, she could get conned or have herself killed.

Yet one thing that kept her going was the thought of her mother; if those stones—or whatever they were—existed, her mother had a wonderful chance of getting exceptional medical attention. She would undergo heart surgery and once more, they would be one happy family.

Fifteen million! That would have her start a charity organization for helping poor kids in Africa! She would name it Norman Foundation; she would be famous and happy! What she needed to make all the above possible was to have the gems in her custody and then sell them successfully.

Drying herself with a long soft towel, she got out of the bathroom, looked at herself in the mirror and for a brief moment, she felt some uncertainty hit back at her.

“Don’t be such an idiot Nat,” she told herself, applying cream on her supple skin. “Such setups are not for simple little girls; they are complicated and need experts. You are getting into this only to embarrass yourself at the end.”

Fifteen million…!

She couldn’t take that figure out of her head no matter how much she tried. What if she could make a dash for it? What if she got those stones—and even sold them? What if….

She stood in front of the dressing mirror staring at her reflection for a long time. Thinking about the mission ahead of her, she wondered whether Robert would be reliable; would he help her without her having to reveal too much? Well, he had organized for her to acquire the disguise equipment without asking too many questions, why would he refuse to help her now?

Yet, she had a gnawing feeling at the back of her mind that she was taking a risk by over-trusting people who were not directly involved in this matter. Nevertheless, she reasoned with herself, she had to start from somewhere, and trusting someone is something that comes naturally. She felt more relaxed and at ease as she got into bed and closed her eyes.

It was half past ten the following morning when Robert sat at his desk, got out his phone and opened his e-mail inbox; there was one from Natty Norman.

Hey Rob, thanks a million for your invaluable help, one day I wish to pay you back! I just need a bit more help if you don’t mind. I have to get out of town, and I would like to move to somewhere more secluded, where no-one will be breathing down my neck; I can’t finish this mission while I keep looking over my shoulder. Do you think you can help me find such a place? Finally, I have a plan to get out of my hotel suite without anyone recognizing me, all I need is someone to walk out carrying my luggage in unrecognizable bags; do you think that will be asking for too much? Please let me know what is possible. Thanks, Love, Natty.

Robert sighed. It indeed was asking a lot, but his mind went back to the time that Natty got him out of a financial crisis, only two months after enrolling into the university. He had incurred a huge deficit in his clothes business and needed to clear his loan arrears before a looming deadline. She had lent him the money, trusting that he would repay it someday soon. Well, of course he would help her—any day. Producing a pocket diary, he flipped some pages till he stopped at a map of the province. Scanning the details carefully, he fished out his mobile phone and dialled a number.

A young, bespectacled blond woman wearing an orange frock came out of the hotel, tugging at a leather string attached to a small dachshund. Looking at her, the man sitting across the street, a newspaper partially covering his face, spat savagely. She hailed a cab, got inside. The cab started ans drove down the street.

He was getting hungry, yet he had to stay here for one two hours and struggle trying to tear his eyes off the kids feasting on snacks down the block. Bored and irritated as he was, he didn’t think anything of the woman who came out of the hotel carrying two black cases. The woman was plump and plain-looking. She stuffed the cases into the trunk of a tiny red car and drove down the street.

He was getting used to the hunger when he realized that Natty hadn’t come out for lunch three hours ago. He dialled a number on his phone and listened.

“Has our bird come out to eat yet?”

“No she hasn’t,” answered a voice.

“Then tell that swine to come over here and relieve me, won’t you?”

“A bit of patience, brother—” replied the voice.

“Okay okay, don’t start it,” said the man curtly, peeping over the newspaper, then hung up.

Forty minutes later, the small blue sedan went off the highway and slid off into a narrow winding forest road. Ten more minutes later, it drove into a small square driveway in front of a modest cabin bordering the forest. The cabin was made of weather-beaten bricks and old wooden roofing tiles.

Natty got out of the car, went up the front-door steps and unlocked the cabin. She found it neat, well-kept and warm. There was a couch, and a desk in the living room, a tiny kitchen and bedroom. She was about to go back to the car to get her suit-cases when a tiny red car came up the driveway, slowed down and stopped.

She saw the car door open and a silhouette of a man step out of the car, holding the top of his bowler hat with one arm.

“That wasn’t too difficult, was it, Nat?” he asked. Natty could visualize a grin on his face.

“I consider it nothing short of a miracle, Robert,” she replied, walking towards him. “I wouldn’t have made it alone.”

Robert opened the passenger door and bent inside, and then resurfaced with two big traveler bags.

“Well,” he said, lifting the bags off the ground. “You’ve helped me before, so I felt like I owed you a favor. Besides, it wasn’t that difficult.”

All that he had done was to have her wear some disguise, and then come out of the hotel tugging at a dachshund. She had entered a taxi that had driven down the street and around three blocks then stopped. She had alighted, crossed the street to where the blue sedan was parked, gotten inside and then driven here with aid of Robert’s map.

Robert had also paid a plump lady who worked in a hotel downtown to come out of Natty’s room with new traveller’s bags which she stuffed into a small red car that he had rented earlier. He had gotten into the car at some point and dismissed the driver before driving here. This cabin was part of a privately-owned property situated in a wooded area off Rustenburg Road, thirty-minute drive from Krugersdorp. For the moment, this cabin seemed to be a convenient place where Natty could conduct her investigative activities until she had the information she needed.

“I love being a man, honey! We travel light; now look at all these cases!”

“Is that an indirect way of complaining for my heavy burdens?” she asked lightly, helping Robert take the cases into the house.

“Somehow, yes,” he said, pretending to sulk. “There is a reason as to why I didn’t choose being a detective for a career.” “Don’t worry, big man, I’ll do all the investigation that needs to be done.”

Natty straightened and turned to make sure all the cases were in the house; then gestured to Robert who fished a key out of his pocket. He locked the cabin, handed her the key and motioned Natty towards the red car.

“Now, let’s go and collect your mystery man,” he said. “Else he dies from missing you.”

“I doubt it. Death would flee at the mere sight of him.”

They took about half an hour to reach Krugersdorp. Hughen was a bit nervous when they took him from his kiosk but he did his best to hide it.

“Both of us will be staying in Calmness Private Resort.” Natty told him as they drove back. “You will have a cabin near mine; that way we will strategize the mission”

Hughen grunted incoherently, his eyes focused ahead as the car swooshed its way into the solid sheet of darkness, snaking its way down the wooded dirt road and then straight to the cabins; here they showed Hughen to his cabin, a replica of the one Natty had occupied and stood some one hundred meters to the north.

TEAMING FOR CONVENIENCE

When the three got into Hughen’s cabin, Natty paused and looked at the two men.

“Listen, Job,” she said. “I have decided to bring Robert along into this. He has been very helpful and the only person I can trust to keep both you and me out of sight, and so far he isn’t doing too badly.”

Natty glanced at them both. Hughen narrowed his eyes and tensed for a moment, stared searchingly at Robert and then shrugged. Robert raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes.

Hughen walked to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink.

“If that’s how you feel.”

“Will someone tell me what the heck is happening?” asked Robert, raising his hands.

“Sit down, Robert. It’s time you heard this,” said Natty, sitting in the couch.

Robert sat there wide eyed, as Natty told him everything he had heard from her mother and lately, Hughen. When she was through, he sat upright and stared at her.

“If you help us pull this off you got yourself two million dollars,”

Robert jumped to his feet.

“Hey, you mean to tell me that you believed that story?” he exclaimed. “Sounds too much like movie stuff.”

“You may believe whatever you want!” snapped Hughen. “I know what I saw; I had it with me.”

“Easy, easy, old man!” Robert intoned. “Let’s get some facts straight: where on earth is the safe?”

“Perhaps I should ask; where the hell is the combination code?” Hughen cut in, gesturing widely with his wine glass in hand.

“Come on guys,” said Natty, “We don’t want to lose focus here. We know what we should do; Job knows the location of the safe, I will provide the code, Robert will take care of logistics. How does that sound, for starters?”

Hughen shrugged. “You have the code?” he asked, pouring himself another drink.

“I think I have the code.”

“You’d better have it, Ma’am,” said Hughen. “And … I expect to get my share just as Mr. Norman and I had agreed.”

“You will, Job.” Natty said firmly. “But you and I have to pay Robert for his efforts. The three of us have to work on it with dedication; otherwise those stones will be of no value to us.”

Hughen considered this and visibly relaxed. Looking at him, Natty decided it was time to clear things up.

“Well,” she began, pulling a chair and sitting on it. “Now that we are here, we had better get down to business. Where is the safe located, Job?”

Hughen’s eyes moved from Natty to Robert and back to Natty again.

“Magaliesberg Mountains.” he said slowly.

Natty was about to ask where that on earth was when she heard Robert suck in his breath sharply.

“Magaliesberg mountains?” he exclaimed incredulously. “Why on earth did you fellas have to transport the rocks all the way to the damn mountains?”

“There is a private golf club in the mountains, owned by a group of wealthy conservation activists—known as Nature Private Golfers,” Hughen explained, easing his body into the couch. “Her father became a member two weeks before he flew home for your graduation,” he added, nodding in the direction of Natty. “

“He kept the safe there?” she asked, frowning. “One year has gone by; for sure the safe can’t possibly be there any more, can it?”

“It should be; it’s a safe deposit box, stored in a vault.” Hughen insisted firmly. “But that isn’t what I am worried about …”

“Oh, what now?” demanded Robert.

“The owners,” Hughen said, looking at Natty. “Those guys will never allow us in. They got strict security.”

“I am her daughter,” she said, sounding defiant. “They should let me access his box!”

“Not unless your father had authorized extra signatories to his account. They have stringent rules. I know for a fact that he hadn’t.”

“He hadn’t?” she asked, feeling dismayed; this thing was becoming even more difficult. “Does it mean…”

“Of course,” affirmed Hughen, a wild light in his eyes. “We have to break in.”

“Jeepers!” Robert blurted. “That will award us with a sweet jail sentence for all eternity!”

She got to her feet. “There has to be another way,” she said thoughtfully, pacing up and down the small room.

“No there isn’t.” said Hughen, his face a mask of boredom and fatigue. “I’ve thought it over for one year and found none other.”

“I could call them and try to prove I am Norman’s daughter—”

“Wait!” Robert cut in. “What if some of those members are affiliated to Groter, the shady company?”

Hughen stared at the dark man as if he had seen him for the first time.

“Mr. Norman had done a thorough digging: there wasn’t at the time. However, some may have joined soon … you may be right; I wouldn’t let the club know.”

“Oh damn!” Natty said, feeling exasperation inside. “How the heck do we rob a vault?”

“That, Ma’am, is what I’ve been trying to figure out for one year.”

Just then Robert, in a small voice, said: “I have an idea that could work.”

Natty and Hughen turned to him and said in unison: “What?”

Outside, a strong wind was beginning to howl.

“First off, for my idea to work, I need to know where the vault is located. Did Nat’s father tell you, Hughen?”

“No, but I trusted him.”

Robert thought for a moment, and then looked back at Hughen.

“Do you think we can somehow get the blueprints? We need to know where the vault is located in the building.”

Hughen shot him a sour look.

“Don’t be such a dope!” he snapped. “Blueprints are stored by the authorities; there’s no way you could get them!”

“Wait…” Natty cut in. “I think we might.”

“What?” said the two men in unison, staring at her.

“Wait here,” she said and headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Outside, the storm was brewing in a furious speed; trees creaked and moaned in the pressure. Then huge drops of rain began to hammer the roof, and before the rain intensed, Natty returned holding her Dad’s laptop.

“I am not promising anything, but considering that my dad chose this club seems he trusted its architecture, and being an architect himself, he would have the blueprints,” she said, sitting on the couch to open the small pearly machine.

Natty went through the hard-drives and scanned through their folders, painstakingly scrutinizing every detail; she opened every single blueprint she found but she couldn’t locate any that was close to “Nature Private Golfers.”

After an hour of searching, she gave up and threw up her hands. “’Don’t even know what to look for. Too many blueprints here; he could have changed the name for all I know!”

For a moment, the three kept silent, each absorbed in their own thoughts, and then Natty had a sudden idea. She grabbed the laptop and pushed a few buttons, and then her face lit up.

“Got it!” she said excitedly.

“You did?” the two men said in unison. Tonight was turning into a night of people talking in unison.

“It was in the trash bin,” she explained. “My father had a habit of keeping an overflowing bin.”

The three watched as Robert studied the plan; then Natty demanded impatiently:

“So … care to tell us now what is in your mind?”

“I had forgotten I am an electrical engineer—it’s what I lecture in the university.”

“I know that, Robert!”

“This plan,” he said, pointing at the small monitor, “…shows clearly all we need to know; look, the boardroom, accounts office, stores, recreation rooms, our sweet little vault— but above all, I am interested in the electrical cable installation … here is the main electrical manhole that will grant us entry into the place.”

Hughen smiled cynically at him.

“Go on talking, man,” he said, “You are doing fine so far.”

The science lecturer faced them and explained his idea in detail. When he was done, Hughen looked at him with interest.

“Why on earth didn’t I think of that? If this works, I will buy you a beer.”

Robert winked at him and then raised his eyebrows at Natty.

“It isn’t completely foolproof, however. If we figure out how to open the vault, it will certainly work.”

“I guess we have had enough for one night,” said Natty. “Let’s sleep on it, and—who knows? We might wake up with more inspiration in the morning.”

They agreed and headed to their respective bedrooms.

Back in her bedroom Natty turned the laptop on again and looked at the blueprint.

“Oh God,” she said aloud, “Please let this work, it has to … please take care of Mom….”

The laptop flashed a message: “BATTERY LOW”

She fetched the power adapter, plugged it to the wall and lifted the laptop to insert the power pin, and was surprised when the battery came off and fell on the table; she had, unknowingly, pressed the latch and unlocked it.

She took the battery, turned the laptop around and was about to replace the battery when she noticed that something was taped onto the bottom of the battery groove. Frowning, she removed the tape and found a small brass key. She picked it and looked closely at it; small block letters were engraved on its head:

N.P.G.

For a moment, her mind was blank; then she looked at the key again.

N.P.G. … Nature Private Golfers? It could be! But … which door was the key meant for?

She sat for a while, thinking hard; it had to be the key to the vault!

“Oh Dad, that was a sweet sign, thank you!” she said with a smile, placing the key on the table.

CHAPTER TWO

WILDLY IN THE WILD

A van bearing bold logos of Jo’burg Power Suppliers came up the lonely country highway and reduced speed as it neared the huge cliffs that rose sharply from either side of the road. Veering off the road, the van drove around a huge boulder then edged its way into the entrance of a wide, short gorge. When he was sure that the van was well hidden from anyone on the highway, the driver brought the van to a smooth halt. He killed the engine and opened the door.

“We walk from here,” he said and went around to the side door, which he opened and bent in to pick their backpacks. “It won’t be long until the storm starts hammering down.”

Their backpacks on their shoulders, the three started to climb up the rocky hill. The terrain was magnificent: beautiful rock formations graced the landscape, which mainly consisted of bushy patches among different types of mountainous grass. Any other time, this would have been such a rewarding, relaxing walk; today it wasn’t: everyone was anxious and worried of what lay ahead of them. Overhead, clouds gathered while a chilly wind began to fan the bushes.

The three reached a plateau and paused. Ahead, they could see the reddish-brown roof of the club-house between trees, barely 500 meters ahead. The property was set in a perfect environment enveloped by nature in its purest form. To the right, a tarred road snaked its way into the premises, partly blocked from view by random bushes and gray “piles” of natural rock formations.

Natty brought her field grasses to her eyes.

“Looks secured alright,” she confirmed.

Hughen glanced at the sky briefly.

“Let’s walk on before the storm catches us by surprise.”

Fifteen minutes later, they reached the perimeter fence.

“Should be somewhere around here,” he said in a low tone, looking at the plan in his hand.

After searching for around five minutes, they located the electrical manhole. It was hidden by a cluster of bushes right next to the fence, near the front gate. Robert knelt and fetched some spanners from his backpack. Just then, the rain began to hammer down on them. Natty opened her big umbrella and covered the two men who worked feverishly to turn the huge nuts on the manhole cover. Eventually, they lifted the heavy cover and placed it aside.

Hughen directed the beam of his flashlight into the wide square manhole. Inside was a network of cables which didn’t mean much to him or to Natty but Robert, wearing black gloves, located a big lever inside. He turned it clockwise, and Natty and Hughen flinched at the loud “click” produced by the stiff lever, fearing the guards might overhear.

“That turns off the power,” said Robert.

He then unscrewed a set of cables, held in place on a metallic plate, and using a cable cutter, clipped the ends of two wires and joined them, then insulated them using black tape.

“Now,” he said, reaching again for the lever. “We blow up the poor fuses inside the premises.” He turned the lever back to its place, waited for a moment and then turned it forward once again. He separated the cables he had joined, screwed them into place and then returned the stiff lever back to its original place.

“Help me replace the cover, Job,” said Robert.

Together, the two men lifted the heavy cover and fixed it back in place, straining not to make noise that would alert the guards.

“We are through, fellows,” said Robert. “Let’s get the hell out of here.

DANGEROUS TERRITORY

It took them twenty minutes of walking against the raging storm to reach the van, shivering as the biting wind whizzed its way through the bushes dancing in the darkness. Turning on the heat, Robert clapped his hands to get the blood flowing.

“By now they have surely called the power company, which should take about forty minutes to arrive—assuming they are in a sympathetic mood.”

Hughen let out a barking mirthless laugh.

“Yeah, usually they are unsympathetic and slow,” he said. “So when do we start?”

“In twenty minutes.”

This time, waiting for twenty minutes to pass seemed a tough test. The three were quiet; apprehension showed on their faces. Natty’s eyes were focused ahead where the dark cliff face marked the end of the gorge, Robert kept glancing at his watch while biting his finger nails. Hughen sat rigidly, his eyes narrow, his lips set in a thin, ruthless line, his hands gripping the wheel.

“It’s time!” said Robert, glancing at the two. “Ready?”

Natty nodded, her mind on her ailing mother. “Let’s do it.”

Hughen kicked the engine to life, thrust the van into reverse then turning the wheel almost savagely, he swerved the vehicle forward around the huge boulder and onto the tarmac road. The van roared its way uphill towards Nature Private Golfers.

The storm had eased and reduced to a calm light shower by the time they reached the gate. Four guards in stiff blue uniform swung a powerful beam of light on the van. Hughen rolled down his window.

“That was fast!” shouted one of the guards.

“The outage affected a big region, and since we were repairing a transformer nearby, our boss asked us to pass by here.”

“Would you please unlock the back door?” asked the guard, clutching an umbrella in one hand and a huge flashlight in the other. “Just regulation, you know.”

“Of course,” said Hughen, pressing a button.

Two guards searched the inside of the vehicle and when they were satisfied, nodded to Hughen. “Proceed.”

“Thanks,” said Hughen, gently driving into the lush compound. He stopped and parked the van at the shed near the front of the clubhouse.

Robert took his tool-box and turned at the two.

“Remember: the power meter-box; then to the Power Consumer Unit which is located near the vault,” said Robert. “We have to hurry and make the snatch before the real Jo’burg Power Suppliers arrive.”

Two guards were waiting to guide them around. The three ‘electricians’ came out of the vehicle, holding their tool bags.

“Power unit is around that block over there,” said one of the guards, pointing to a building silhouetted against the dark sky. “It’s strange, even the standby generator won’t function.”

“Power overload,” replied Robert, putting on a professional tone. “Results of such a big storm.”

“Good evening,” boomed a voice behind them. They all turned but they couldn’t clearly see the features of a tall man wearing a raincoat and holding a flashlight. “I am James Moore; I am the manager here.”

“Good evening, Mr. Moore,” said Robert cheerfully. “We will get the system working in no time.”

“Hope so,” said the manager, and then turned to the guard. “Stay with them and help them with anything they need.”

The guard saluted. “Of course, sir.”

Nodding in the darkness, Moore set off for a building to the right. Possibly going back to his room, thought Natty.

At the meter-box, Robert fixed a few fuses, replaced a few gadgets and nodded to the two guards. They proceeded to the block which housed the power consumer unit where the guard unlocked the door and let them inside. At this place, they could all feel the tension clinging on them like vestments, with the vault so close. Robert stepped on a stool and motioned to Hughen to hand over the tool box. He picked a pair of nozzle pliers and after lifting the cover of the unit, looked inside and whistled.

“Damn, the switches are fried,” he said.

“Uh—you can repair them, can’t you?” said the guard impatiently.

“Yes, only one problem … we might end up blowing the entire unit. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we have to block the current flow from the transformer outside the gate.”

“What?” the guard retorted. “You have to climb up the poles in this god-forbidden weather?”

“No. We need to locate an electrical manhole somewhere near the transformer. Usually found a few meters away, either inside or outside the compound.”

“Yes, there is one outside the fence,” said the other guard.

“Listen,” said Robert, addressing the two guards, “You two have to take me to the manhole—one of you will hold the umbrella to prevent rainwater from coming into contact with the wiring, while the other helps me open the cover. Once we are there, I will disconnect some cables, and then my two colleagues here will replace the switches. When they do that, they will notify me via phone, and then I will replace the cables; after that the lights will shine.”

The guards hesitated nervously, then decided that it was safe since they would be with the ‘boss’ of the electricians, furthermore, the vault was locked.

“Whatever,” snapped one of the guards. “Let’s do it!”

Robert glanced at Natty and Hughen. “When I beep you, unscrew the switches and replace them, and when you are through, beep me. Okay?”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Hughen.

“Won’t be a moment,” said Robert, following the guard towards the gate.

SET A THIEF TO CATCH A THIEF

When they were alone, Natty fished the vault key hurriedly and grabbed Hughen by the arm.

“Let’s go for it!”

Shining her flashlight ahead, Natty ran down the corridor, followed closely by Hughen. Where the corridor reached the end was door to the right. Carefully, Natty inserted the key and turned it: the door was unlocked.

She almost collapsed with relief.

Stepping inside, they shone beams of light on the long room: the walls were lined with rows of small metallic doors; on the doors were sets of combination buttons, each bearing a red glowing indicator. The vault locks were running on back-up batteries.

“Number 28—look for number 28!” Hughen intoned.

It didn’t take them long: 28 was the box at the end of the room. Natty produced her father’s photograph and tried what she presumed to be the code, pressing the buttons hurriedly with her fingers shaking. She was convinced that her thumping heart could be heard outside the vault.

As she pressed the last numeral in the code, she held her breath.

The lock didn’t budge.

“Damn it!” she cursed, and tried again, inserting the code backwards.

The lock clicked. It worked!

“Open the god-damned thing!” hissed Hughen urgently. Outside, thunder boomed with an echo reverberating across the mountain rocks.

Natty swung the small door backwards and shone the beam inside the safe. A plastic case lay there, waiting to be picked. Natty paused, scared for a moment that an alarm may go off; then grabbed its handle and pulled it out, and then locked the safe.

“Let’s get out of here before another guard finds us!”

They ran out of the vault and locked the door behind them; then went back to the power consumer unit. Just then, Natty’s phone flashed momentarily: it was Robert. They waited a few minutes and then Natty flashed back. A few seconds later, the lights turned on and lit the entire place. The rain had subsided. Looking around, Natty realized how pretty the premises were; the buildings were lined with marble and surrounded with lush gardens. Beautiful cobblestones carpeted the entire driveway from the front gate to the porch.

The two walked towards the vehicle, carrying the tool box and the case from the vault. They came across three guards bearing rifles and tugging at panting German Shepherds.

“All okay?” asked one of the guards, glancing at the boxes.

“All okay,” Hughen replied, embarrassed at his own hoarse voice.

Natty opened the front of the van and placed the boxes on the passenger seat.

“Hey!” called one of the guards. “I need to check those boxes!”

Hughen and Natty stiffened.

“Why, sure!” said Natty, turning around. The guard came over and opened the toolbox. He stared at the tools and closed the box, then motioned at the other case.

“Open that,” he said curtly.

Slowly, Natty opened the case from the vault and lifted the lid. Inside were coils of electrical cables.

The guard nodded and walked along.

Hughen was sweating profusely.

“How did you do that?” he whispered. “Where are the d—”

“Shoosh!” Robert said, approaching the van. “Let’s get the hell out of this place. Our electrician friends are approaching fast.”

“You drive,” said Hughen, still shaken. “I might crash the blasted van if I do.”

They got inside the van, expecting to be stopped again any moment but Robert turned on the engine.

“That wasn’t too hard, was it?” he asked, grinning as he eased the vehicle out of the front gate. The guards saluted and slammed the gate shut behind them. About a mile away, they could see headlights approaching fast. That had to be the real Power guys coming to repair the black-out.

Natty fished out a map.

“Turn left ahead,” she said, studying the old map. “The road will take us to the highway that heads for Krugersdorp.”

It was a narrow but fairly smooth dirt road. Robert stepped hard on gas and the van lurched forward and sped in the general direction of Krugersdorp.

“So … what was in our case?” asked Robert.

“Yeah, me too … I want to know!” Hughen cut in.

Natty opened the front of her jacket and produced a polythene bag secured with tape.

“I had a hunch that we would be searched before getting into the van, so I improvised.”

“That was brilliant of you! Show us the dazzlers, honey!” said Robert.

Natty unstrapped the parcel and looked inside the bag. The beam of her flashlight seemed to dance as the diamonds glittered with the most dazzling intensity she had ever seen. There was around 700 grams of gems in that bag, and they seemed almost fragile, yet so strong. Here was her mother’s ticket to better treatment and a shining future!

“Gee, talk about beauty! Those things are more beautiful than the stars of heaven!” exclaimed Robert, his eyes darting from the road ahead to the gems and back to the road.

Hughen sucked in his breath and licked his thin lips, and then started to laugh uncontrollably. He was still laughing when ahead, they caught sight of a car parked across the narrow road, blocking passage entirely. Robert slowed the van and brought it to a halt while Natty put the plastic bag into its original case.

“Now what?” she demanded.

“Uh-Oh,” said Robert nervously. “We got company.”

Three masked men clad in black appeared in the glare of the headlights. They were holding automatic rifles, pointing them to the van.

“Get your asses out of the van, pronto!” bawled one of the gunmen. “Out with your hands in the air!”

“Jesus,” hissed Robert as he opened his door. “We are nabbed.”

“They’re muggers, obviously,” said Natty, suppressing her rising panic as she stepped out of the van. “They want our money, probably.”

“No they aren’t,” Hughen sneered, barking out a mirthless laugh. Natty and Robert turned and stared at him.

Hughen produced a revolver and pointed it at his colleagues.

“These men,” he said maliciously; “are here to take the diamonds from you. They work for me.” He howled out a laugh; listening at it, Natty thought a hyena could have laughed more humanely.

“You filthy bastard,” said Robert bitterly. “Scum of the earth! So all along you were using us!”

“Give me the god-damned case!” he snarled, an evil light in his eyes.

Natty handed it to her, feeling tears burn her cheeks. Hughen grabbed it, opened the door of the white car blocking the road and placed it on the back seat.

“Now,” he nodded to his gunmen, who cocked their guns and shot the front tires of the van consecutively. The van leaned forward, its bumper almost touching the mud.

“So long, buddies,” Hughen said mockingly. “I must admit, this black ape has style.”

Robert was about to jump to him and wrench his neck when one of the gunmen slammed his rifle against his neck. He went down with a thud. Natty screamed and reached out at him.

“Robert!” she yelled fervently, shaking him.

“He’ll be out for a while, sweetie,” said Hughen. “After all, I have my stones thanks to him.” He gestured impatiently to his hoods.

“Start the car,” he snapped. “We are getting late.”

One of the hoods hesitated. “What about the pretty doll? We are leaving her here?”

“No-one touches her!” Hughen barked. “I owe her father my fortune. Let’s go!”

Natty sobbed. “I will find you, Hughen! I will hunt you down if it takes forever!”

“Oh, really!” he sneered. “You see, ‘forever’ is such a long time! I’ll accept the challenge, sweetie!” He bowed mockingly.

With that, Hughen and his men got into the car and drove off into the darkness.

CHAPTER THREE

DAREDEVILS

With a slow moan, Robert sat up and rubbed his neck. Natty tugged at his arm, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Oh Robert! I thought I had lost you!”

“Do you love me that much, honey?” he said and forced a grin.

“Oh, you are awful, Robert! Now what do we do? We only have one spare wheel!”

“No we don’t, actually we have two beneath the van. It was out of a hunch I had,” he said and winked. “Now help me up, Nat.”

“You are a genius, Robert!”

“I know, honey, it’s ironical that I am not the one who ran off with the dazzlers.”

“How do you feel?” she asked, helping him to stand.

“I will survive. Look, although I feel as if a tank has run me over, we have to go after those hoods. We can’t let them get away with what we worked so hard to achieve!”

“Do you think we can reach them?”

“Let’s attempt it, Nat.”

He handed her a stencil knife. “Get rid of the vinyl branding, Nat”

She took the knife and began to remove the power company logos stuck on the surface of the van by Robert. Meanwhile, Robert lay under the van turning the corkscrews that fixed the spare wheels in place.

Working fast in the darkness, they managed to change the tires and by the time they were through, they were sweating profusely more out of impatience and excitement that the strain from the labor. Twenty minutes later, a van with a new face and new license plates was hurtling down the road, with Robert driving at a speed that scared Natty. Ahead, they could see the glowing red tail lights of Hughen’s car.

Natty glanced at Robert’s dark profile: his face looked set and determined; eyes focused ahead and his muscular hands gripping the wheel with confidence … he was all she had now. Thinking about it now, she was intrigued to realize how she had partaken in this quest without knowing whom to trust, only to end up with this man. While he seemed a carefree man who was rarely serious in matters that demanded seriousness, he was undeniably reliable.

He seemed to read her mind because he turned and glanced at her, flashing his most charming smile.

“You alright?”

“Ah … yes, I guess,” she replied, her cheeks flushing deep pink.

“Your mom will be fine, I promise. Once we are out of this mess, I’ll take you to dinner without anybody peeping at us around the corner.”

“Thank you, Robby. You are a darling.”

He grinned in the dark. “Robby … I like that. No-one ever called me that before.”

“None of your girlfriends did?”

“Nope,” he said, thrusting the gear-lever forward. The van was slowly gaining on the car ahead. “No wonder I’ve always believed you are special.”

Natty chuckled. “I am flattered.”

“No, you are, Nat, and that’s a fact,” he said, turning momentarily to glance at her.

“Thanks,” she replied, glad that he couldn’t see her blushing.

The road ahead changed to tarmac as they neared the suburbs lying north-west of Johannesburg. They were about three hundred meters behind Hughen’s car when they saw its brake lights shine deep orange. Robert reduced speed as the car ahead turned left. He switched off the headlights and turned to Natty.

“We don’t want them to see us tailing them,” he explained. “The road is smooth now and no visible oncoming traffic.”

Natty nodded.

Ahead, they came to a junction and diverted left just in time to see Hughen’s car enter through a tall gate made of white vertical iron bars. Robert drove past the gate and parked the van on the curb a few meters ahead.

“Let’s see what those guys are up to,” said Robert.

“Hope we won’t stop bullets,” she said and shivered.

“Me too.”

The two crossed the road and approached the gate, which was unlocked and slightly ajar. It seemed Hughen and his party had no idea that they had been followed. They entered the compound and walked up a paved path lit with ball-shaped lights on both sides. The white car was parked on the driveway in front of a white-washed two-storied house whose French windows remained wide open, lit from the inside with a warm yellow tint. The house was really wide; it touched the stone fence at both ends, leaving only a small iron door to the right that connected it to the stone fence. Apparently, the door led to a private backyard.

Animated voices came from inside, apparently a heated debate or argument. Natty and Robert approached the house and peered through the window. Hughen was pacing up and down the living room, watched closely by three tough-looking men wearing shoulder holsters. A fourth man—short and heavily built—was sitting on a leather couch, a drink in his hand, looking as expressionless as a statue. Norman’s diamond case lay on the table. Looking at it, Natty felt a strong urge to walk into the room and snatch it but she knew she wouldn’t get anywhere with that kind of thinking.

Hughen stopped pacing and stared at the short seated man.

“I want to be far away from here by daybreak, Ven,” he said, an edge in his voice.

“Luvo will arrive around midnight,” said the short man, a bored expression on his face. “You will have your money alright, Job.”

Natty tugged at Robert’s arm.

“Any ideas?”

“I don’t know,” Robert whispered. “We are unarmed and vulnerable….”

Then Natty had an idea.

“I’ll check to see what is in that car,” she said and darted across the driveway as silently as she could.

Robert was thinking of how he could create a distraction. He turned and walked towards the small iron door at the end of the house, pulled back the bolt silently and left the small door ajar; then walked to the white car and joined Natty.

Natty had found the car unlocked. She performed a quick search but found nothing of significance, tried the glove compartment and found it locked. She had no idea how to bust it open, so she turned to Robert.

“Give me a hand.”

He fished a screw-driver from his breast pocket. Working effortlessly on the brittle lock, its cover snapped open; revealing three revolver pistols covered with a small towel. He picked them and balanced each in his hands.

“These look loaded. I’ve never fired a gun before, Natty. What about you?”

Natty smiled at him.

“Never heard you being so honest before!”

Robert feigned a hurt look.

“You haven’t? Hey, you mean to say that—”

“Don’t fret, Mr. Bhekifa,” said Natty, laughing softly. “Hey, did you know how handsome you look when hurt?”

“Perhaps you should tell me more, Princess,” cooed Robert, handing her one of the guns. “I hereby grant you permission to hurt me more, so that you may admire my looks more.”

“I’ve done enough admiring for one night, fortunately.” She said, making a face. “Listen, I did some shooting lessons in Kentucky right before I started my degree course. Turned out that I had some talent after all. The basics: grip it firmly, cock off the safety, aim and fire. Keep your thumbs clear of the hammer while firing; be aware of the recoil. Remember to—”

She stopped in mid-sentence when the front door opened and Ven, the short man, came out talking on his mobile phone, a cigarette smoldering in his left hand. Natty and Robert ducked behind the car.

“I am going to give him a nice surprise,” whispered Robert.

“Hey! What are you planning to do?”

“Trust me Nat, this will work.”

Natty stared at him, and then shrugged. “Don’t do anything unusually stupid.”

“I know you don’t want to lose me,” he said, winking. “Me neither.”

“If this was any other place, I could have really kicked your butt!” Natty said tightly.

Robert sprung forward towards Ven, who had his back facing the car, engrossed in his phone conversation. Ven was ending his call when he felt something cold and hard press against the back of his neck.

“Freeze, Ven,” whispered Robert, pressing the gun against Ven’s neck; coiling his left arm around the short man’s chest.

Ven stiffened as if he had been touched by a rattlesnake.

“That’s my man,” whispered Robert. “Now walk with me towards that car. Try a trick and you won’t see daybreak ever again.”

Robert half-dragged the short man to the car, the revolver still on Ven’s neck. Natty straightened up when the two men came over around the car.

“Open my trouser side-pocket,” Robert said, addressing Natty, “Take some cable. We are going to tie this fella up.”

“Who are you?” demanded Ven, his eyes getting large. “What do you want from me?”

Natty slammed the barrel of the gun on Ven’s mouth. The short man stifled a scream.

“We want the—”

“Easy, Honey!” Robert cut in and then turned to Ven. “You see, my girlfriend is convinced we should shoot you, but I am gonna talk her out of it. All I need you to do is simple: make a short phone call, and you will be safe.”

“Fine!” Ven said, spitting out blood.

They bound the short man’s hands behind his back and finally his legs. Natty produced a big handkerchief from the car and used it to gag him.

Robert leaned forward. “I need you to call Hughen and tell him to ask two of his hoods to come out and walk to the back of the house. Tell him you are injured, that someone has shot you. Tell Hughen to remain in the house with one of his thugs and guard the stones. Come on, snap it!”

Robert dialed Hughen’s number from Ven’s phone and removed the gag; then held the phone against Ven’s ear.

The short man talked excitedly and said exactly what he was told. As soon as he finished, Robert returned the gag, lifted him and threw him into the car. Just then, two of the hoods appeared at the porch, guns lifted above their shoulders. They paused and turned sideways, and satisfied that no-one was lurking in the front yard, ran and walked carefully through the iron door that led to the back of the house.

Robert took off fast after them, reached the iron door and bolted it, and then beckoned to Natty who came running up the cobblestones.

“Three out of the way; two to go,” he whispered.

“You must have been a gangster yourself before!” Natty replied.

“Shhhhhhh!”

Both stooped below the French windows and peered inside.

Hughen had his gun drawn, the case with the diamonds gripped in his left arm. His gunman was holding a semi-automatic, his expression tense.

“I’ll take Hughen,” Natty whispered. “Aim for the gunman; try the legs; we don’t want to murder anyone.”

Both aimed and fired at the same time.

Natty’s bullet hit and shattered Hughen’s hand that held the gun; he screamed and fell back on the couch, twisted in agony, and released the case. His gun fell on the table and went off with a loud bang.

Robert fired and blew up the gunman’s kneecap. He fired again and hit his thigh; the gunman fell heavily on the floorboards, dropping the gun.

“Damn you, Robert,” said Natty, dashing for the door. “You lied that you’ve never fired a gun before.”

“I swear on my skull I’ve never,” he panted, running after Natty.

They entered the room. Hughen and his gunman stared at them, their faces contorted in pain.

“Remember me, Hughen?” Natty asked him. “Eternity proved to be short, didn’t it?” Hughen attempted to reach for the gun but Natty shot his second arm. He howled like a lost soul.

“You could have gotten yourself a nice share if you weren’t such a greedy idiot,” said Natty, picking the diamond case from the table. “So long!”

“Let’s get out of here before the rest of the hoods find us,” said Robert anxiously.

“Where are we headed?” asked Natty as the van sped down the highway at 120 kilometers-per-hour.

“I don’t know!” Robert replied. “I think we could get a hotel room for tonight, and move elsewhere tomorrow … perhaps head for Cape Town or wherever. If we remain in Jo’burg, I am sure they’ll hunt us down.”

“What will happen to your lectures?” she asked with concern.

“I will call the university and make up a story; you know … my grandma got bitten by a cow and needs me to nurse her … whatever!”

“You are awfully crazy; you know that, don’t you?”

“Sure I am. Always happens when you are around. I am questioning my own sanity—even in my sleep,” said Robert, flashing snow-white teeth in a wide grin.

Natty smiled to herself. She then realized that she was more at ease with this man than she had ever been with anyone else all her life. How many girlfriends did he have? He looked like a ‘player’, though with her, he acted like a gentleman, if not a hero. She wondered if he was doing all this for the $15,000,000 worth of diamonds in her plastic case.

“Can I ask you a question, Robert?”

“Sure, shoot!” he turned right and entered a brightly-lit street lined with blooming jacarandas; then slowed down to a more comfortable speed.

“What would you have done if we would have lost the gems?” she asked, looking at his face searchingly.

“I don’t know … maybe I’d have helped organize a fund-raising for your mom’s treatment. After that I would have tracked Hughen down and given him a hiding for behaving a little creep.”

Natty stared at him.

“Really? You can do that—for me?”

Robert frowned at her.

“Fundraising?” he asked, making it sound like she had asked the most stupid question ever. “Of course I can! We do it all the time here in Africa!”

She sighed.

“Thank you, Robert, that’s rather sweet of you. I am lucky to have met you.”

Robert pulled over in front of a hotel bearing a pink neon sign:

UPPER DOWNS - Late Foods and Accommodation.

He turned to her; for once, she could see honesty in his eyes.

“No, Nat,” he said, his hand on hers. “I am lucky to have met you. I have always considered you special.”

“Why?”

“Beats me,” he said and shrugged. “Something in your eyes, your face, your figure, your way of life … I can’t pin it down, but something in you surely is. You believe that, don’t you?”

Natty leaned over and kissed his cheek.

“Let’s get something to eat” she said. “I could consume a whole horse right now.”

Upper Downs was a middle-to-top class hotel with some of the most enjoyable food Natty had ever tasted in Johannesburg. Sitting opposite Robert, she wiped chicken broth from her lips with a napkin and smiled at him.

“What a day!” she exclaimed.

“Movie stuff, isn’t it?” replied Robert, pouring water into a glass. “Can’t believe what we’ve been through.”

“All I can think of right now is to get under a shower—”

She stopped and rolled her eyes.

“Calmness Private Resort. Our clothes are back there in those cabins!”

“Yeah, but you can be sure that by now Hughen’s party will be waiting for us if we dared go back!”

“You are right,” she said.

“I could arrange with the manager of the property to have the luggage sent to a destination of our choice, though.”

“Nice idea,” she wiped her lips once again. Looking at her, Robert felt his heart thump in his ribs. Those lips ….

“There isn’t much we can do now other than wait for tomorrow….” Natty went on, but Robert wasn’t listening. He was starting to realize that this wasn’t like the usual girls he went out with: this young woman seemed to possess quite a high level of strength of character. That coupled with her looks … This was the kind of woman a man could hang around and be content. Right then, Robert had no doubt that he could willingly give up his well-paying job to hang around her always.

“Are you still listening, Robert?” Natty asked, raising her voice a bit.

Robert snapped his mind back to the present, feeling slightly embarrassed—a feeling that surprised him. He rarely felt drawn to a woman this way.

“Uh…” he cleared his throat apologetically. “You were saying…?”

“I was saying that I feel sleepy, and could we please rent some rooms?”

“Definitely,” he said and leaned towards her. “Uh, I just want you to know … aside from all the adventure and the stones and whatever else, I thoroughly enjoyed being with you; your company is great and unlike any other I’ve ever had before. Very soon we will have to part ways, and I will go back to a blue life where nothing illuminates, nothing attracts, nothing is really worth living for. You know, I always thought a good job and an ‘okay’ life was all I needed to be happy but now I can see how wrong I’ve always been.”

He paused and started to stand but Natty pulled him back to the chair.

“Thanks for those valuable words, Robby,” she said, squeezing his hand with hers. “I know well what a blue life means, and it’s not what you will experience when we part ways; you see, you will have all the money—”

“Hang the money!” he cut in, a stressed look in his eyes; then immediately got to his feet.

“Let’s rent some rooms, Nat, feels like my neck is starting to hurt again.”

Several minutes later, Natty lay between warm sheets, the diamond case at the foot of the bed. She took her phone and dialled Kentucky. The doctor answered and told her that her mother had shown remarkable progress but she was already asleep. This news made her feel a great surge of hope that swept over her like a tidal wave. All she could afford to do was thank the doctor profusely and look forward to much better times.


It was eight in the following morning when Natty heard a knock on his hotel bedroom. She sat up, stretched and yawned; then got out of bed and slipped into her bath robe.

She opened the door and found Robert standing there, looking fresh, relaxed and clad in a light-blue shirt, blue jeans and sports shoes. In his hand was a plastic bag filled with clothes.

“Good morning, Nat!” he said, his voice full of his usual charm.

“’Morning, Robert. You look great! Please do come in.”

“Thanks,” he said and handed the bag to her. “I visited an early shop and thought these would do you good.”

Natty opened her eyes wide as she sifted through the bag, fishing out a few blouses, two skirts or so, two pairs of jeans and a neat, grey jumper.

She looked up at him, her mouth a big ‘O’.

“Robert, you bought me clothes!” she said excitedly. “Yes, uh … I thought that, well, you needed clothes to change, remember?”

Natty slid her arms around his neck, crashed her lips on his and gave him a long passionate kiss.

“Don’t say anything else,” she said, looking up into his dark eyes, her fingers moving down his handsome brown clean-shaven face.

His big muscular arms went around her and drew her to himself.

“Been dreaming of holding you this way since the day I first saw you,” he said hoarsely.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me then?” she asked softly.

“I couldn’t, for the life of me. Felt I wasn’t your type….”

“I don’t like this man,” she said teasingly, her eyes half closed. “He can read minds!”

Finally, they allowed themselves to be drawn into the ecstasy of their love.

TEAMING FOR A HUNT

J.L. Abraham was a tall broad-shouldered man with thick white hair and a white beard. With small, hawk-like dark eyes, Abraham was regarded as a thorough, ruthless and keen on achieving his objective.

This particular morning, he was seated at the desk in his home office, clad in a silver-grey suit and sipping hot coffee when the TV reporter’s voice suddenly caught his attention. He turned to the right and removed his glasses.

… was last night when Nature Private Golfers, a private club of conservationists situated in Magaliesberg Mountains, received a strange trio of intruders whom the guards and management thought to be electricians from Jo’burg Power Suppliers…

The reporter’s face vanished and the scene melted into three faces set in hooded Jackets … then he recognized Hughen’s face. Walking swiftly, he crossed over to the TV decoder and pressed the ‘record’ button; then went back to the desk and picked the telephone receiver and dialled a number.

“Chris? I need to talk to you ASAP. I am at home,” he said and replaced the receiver.

The reporter’s voice went on:

… They had caused a power black-out and blamed it on the storm, a trick they used to gain entry to the highly-secured club grounds. Although the management isn’t sure if anything was stolen from their vaults, reliable sources are suggesting the possibility of expensive or highly-valued items from the club’s vault’s ….

Abraham crossed over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a stiff drink. This, he mused, was turning out to be quite an interesting morning. Turning to the TV again, he almost choked on his drink when he recognized Natty Norman’s face, though her eyes were hidden behind big glasses.

…the identity of the vehicle hasn’t yet been verified. The third accomplice, said to be a tall black man and supposedly the leader of the group, didn’t get face captures on surveillance cameras when power returned.

Abraham rubbed his eyes in thought. Tall black man? Leader of the group? He thought for a while and once more, his attention was drawn to the television screen.

… In other news, there was a shoot-out last evening at eight where a certain Job Hughen and his business associate Allan Mill sustained serious bullet injuries and compound fractures on arms and legs. The incident happened at ….

“Hughen!” exclaimed Abraham. This must have been a fight over the diamonds!

… are hospitalized in West-Lake Hospital. An interview with the police was not immediately fruitful.

Then as commercial break took over, Abraham himself poured more wine and stared outside the window, deep in thought.

Just then, a short, heavily-built black man wearing a blue sport-suit knocked and entered.

“What’s the deal, John?” he asked in a booming voice.

“Sit down, Chris. I guess it’s time to get our hands dirty.”

He walked over to the decoder and re-played the news.

TEAMING FOR LOVE

Natty and Robert, sitting at the tiny table in Natty’s hotel room, stared at one another. They had just had breakfast when the morning news on TV gave the seemingly-mysterious account of last evening events at the golf club premises.

“Do you think I am too recognizable?” asked Natty.

“Not really,” replied Robert, displaying his usual smile. “Good thing is; I didn’t appear in those cameras. Nevertheless, Abraham can’t be fooled. He’ll soon be coming after us.”

“What do you suggest we do now?”

“Get out of town before the heat turns unbearable. You don’t want to lose your beauties.”

Natty hesitated as a thought crossed her mind.

“What if we could stash it somewhere and travel without it?”

Robert shot her a surprised look.

“Nice idea,” he said. “But I wonder where….”

Natty stood up and inspected the ceiling. Robert frowned at her.

“What are you looking for?”

“The least obvious place,” she said, her eyes scanning the surface of the room.

“You seriously can’t be suggesting that we leave the stones in a hotel room?” Robert asked incredulously.

“Why not? Come to think about it; who would think we can do that?”

Robert hesitated.

“The least obvious place … now where would that be?” He then looked at her and snapped his fingers.

“Power supply unit—sounds familiar?” he said, flashing his trademark smile.

Natty raised her eyebrows.

“You mean we ….”

“Yes,” Robert interrupted, “There must be one next to your bathroom. Since I have my tools with me, all we need to do is unscrew the box and stash the bag behind it; then get out of here.”

Natty smiled at him.

“Did I say you are a —”

“Yes you did, Nat,” he cut in, wrapping his arms around her. “But you were wrong. The genius here is you, and for once, I feel strangely happy that we will be somehow free of the gems now, be it temporarily. I wish I’ll never have to see them again, honestly.”

“Really? And why so?”

“Because I want you to myself.”

“Jealous man,” she said, looking fondly into his eyes. “But I agree with you. I wish we were not involved with these things in the first place but we are; that’s something we will have to live with. Besides, it’s not that bad—being tied up to a fortune.”

“Yes it isn’t—especially if there is a beautiful woman involved,” he cooed. “And that woman is you.”

Natty closed her eyes.

CHAPTER FOUR

HUGHEN UNDER PRESSURE

Abraham parked his car outside West-Lake Hospital and walked into the ward where Hughen was admitted, closely followed by Chris.

Hughen lay propped on the pillows, his cast arms heavily bandaged.

Abraham pulled a wooden chair and eased his bulk on it. Chris remained on his feet, his arms crossed.

“Hello Job,” Abraham said, his voice impersonal. “Quite some damage the two birds inflicted on you.”

Hughen stared at him.

“Abraham? What the hell are you doing here?”

Abraham removed his glasses and wiped them carefully with a snow-white handkerchief before putting them on again.

“Paying you a courtesy call, of course,” he said, feigning a sad look. “You see, your face is plastered all over the newspapers; and with things going the way they are, you will most certainly end up in jail, Job.”

“Thanks for reminding me the obvious,” said Hughen, his voice heavy with disdain. “Now get you and your fat hood out of my ward.”

Abraham turned and looked at Chris, whose eyes didn’t move.

“Did you hear that, Chris? Poor idiot doesn’t recognize our sympathy.” Chris shrugged.

“Listen, Hughen,” said Abraham, leaning closer to Hughen, “We can help you get out this mess … well, if you help us in return.”

Hughen shifted in the sheets. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that by tomorrow—or sooner, this ward will be guarded; the police will be crawling all over the place. Well, if you co-operate with us, by this time tomorrow you will be away from here, comfortable in my protection and free to recover without worrying of prison. I can take you out of here with remarkable ease; all you have to do is tell me everything: where our two friends are and how you planned to undertake the sale of the stones.”

Hughen laughed scornfully.

“Did you honestly think that I could trust you, Abraham?”

“You don’t have a choice, Job,” Abraham said wearily, removing his glasses to wipe them again. This seemed to be a habit.

“You just intend to scare me.”

Abraham got to his feet.

“If you think that I am stupid enough to waste my valuable time by coming here just to scare you, let’s see who is really stupid.”

He nodded to Chris. “Let us get out of here.”

The two walked towards the door.

“Wait!” Hughen called, his voice leaking concealed fear.

Abraham turned and raised an eyebrow.

“You have something to tell us, Job?”

“I won’t tell you a single word until I am miles away from here.”

Abraham smiled knowingly.

“That’s better Job. See you ‘round.”

Then he walked out of the ward, followed by Chris.

Their two duffel bags packed, Natty and Robert were ready to check out of the hotel. They had resolved to take a train Cape Town where they would stay until they felt it was safe to resume business.

They had also decided to take an extra precaution: they were sure that now Abraham would use all means to track them down, and that included their mobile phones; so they shut them down and removed the batteries.

Apart from the tension of being on the run, this seemed like one prolonged picnic where both of them had discovered love and was willing to be carried by its wave. None of them could hide the excitement of its effect, and Natty was sure that the future was bright and more promising than ever.

“Just a little bit longer, Mom,” she whispered to herself. “Hold on a little bit longer.”

After signing out, the two got a cab and headed for the train station, confident that no-one would discover the diamonds hidden in Upper Downs Hotel.

DAWN OF DETECTION

Police Detective Henry David was a tall thin man with wide ears, a thin nose and pointed chin; his features gave him the look of a ruthless bat.

He produced two print-outs from an envelope and handed them to Sergeant Larry Mosegi who leaned forward across the desk and studied them.

“This is one and the same man: Hughen.” David said in a bored tone.

Mosegi, a thin dark man approaching fifty, lifted his bulging eyes off the photographs and peered at David above his thick-lensed glasses.

“Correctly put, Detective.”

“Seems that his accomplices shot him and ran off with the booty.”

Mosegi crossed his arms and studied David’s face.

“Whatever the booty may mean?”

“We are yet to establish that, Sir. We advised the management to call for a meeting and have the members confirm whether any of their valuables is missing.”

“Again, correctly put, Detective.”

“They didn’t leave any fingerprints since they had gloves on. However, we have witnesses who saw a man and a woman run out of the compound and escape in a van.”

“What will be your next move, Detective?”

David shrugged.

“To put a bit of pressure in Hughen and have him confess everything.”

“You think he will?”

David got to his feet.

“I know he will,” he said, straightening his collar. “They always do.”

Mosegi pushed his sagging glasses up to the bridge of his nose; then looked up at David with eyes that looked even more sinister behind the thick lenses.

“Do that, Detective. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

“Excuse me,” said David as he went out of the office.

Mosegi turned back to the photographs.

“Hughen …” he said aloud. “Where have I seen you before?”

STEALING OUT THE THIEF

Gripping the steering wheel of a gray SUV parked in front of the hospital morgue, Abraham rolled down his window as two men came out through the gate and approached the car. One was Wilfred, hospital Staff, and the other was Hughen, so cleverly disguised that Abraham himself had trouble recognizing him. Apart from his broken arms hidden behind a pale green jacket, there was nothing indicating a patient getting smuggled out of a hospital.

“Get in and make it snappy,” hissed Abraham.

The two men got in and Abraham stepped on gas. The vehicle lurch forward down the street.

“That was a commendable job,” said Abraham.

“Great to be of service, Mr. Abraham.”

Abraham pulled over just before he entered the main highway and got his hand into his coat pocket. When his hand reappeared, it was holding an envelope.

“For your efforts,” he said, not turning to face him. “Remember, you didn’t see, hear and don’t know anything, right?”

“Right,” said Wilfred, a wolfish smile on his face. “Nice to do business with you.”

“If my name gets mentioned anywhere, consider yourself a corpse.” Abraham’s voice was as impersonal as it could get.

“It won’t happen,” Wilfred said, opening the door.

“Good. Now run along.”

The SUV entered the highway and sped away towards the city.

CHAPTER FIVE

PURSUING PLAN B

Hughen sat on the soft cream-colored couch and took time to readjust his slings. Abraham pulled a vintage armchair, sat in it and stared at Hughen with small piercing eyes.

“Well?” Abraham began, crossing his legs. “You owe me a story, but then at this moment, what I need most is to find your two accomplices.”

Hughen made up what he imagined would be a smile. It came out a grimace.

“They must have decided to adopt ‘plan B’,” he said. “Plan A was to sell the diamonds to James Joris, a wealthy collector who sells to jewelers across South Africa and—”

“I know who James Joris is,” Abraham cut him short. “But I note that your little act of double-cross was no part of ‘Plan A’?”

Hughen blinked and swallowed.

“Well, I–I …”

“Doesn’t matter,” Abraham said, waving the topic aside. “Can you elaborate ‘Plan B’ more?”

“Plan B was to take effect once the authorities or other interested party showed considerable interest in the matter and posed a threat. The plan was to travel to the Cape Town and contact possible merchants from there.”

“You are saying that the two must be headed for the Cape?”

“That is my bet. By train, yes.”

Abraham nodded, stared unblinkingly at Hughen for a long moment and then asked:

“Any train service you had previously planned on using? Any hotel reservation you had planned?”

“We hadn’t arrived at that.”

Abraham crossed over to the desk and took his cell phone. He dialed a number and lowered his voice.

“Alex? I want you to look into all train passengers travelling from Jo’burg to Cape Town in the past twenty four hours. I am sending you two photos right this moment: let me know if the people in those photos have boarded the train yet.”

He hung up and took a deep breath.

ENROUTE TO THE CAPE

As the train whizzed its way through the wild, virgin bush land, Natty looked out of the window and whistled, amazed. The landscape was spectacular, one of the most peace-inspiring she had ever come across. The hills, rough and brownish green, raced backwards as the train sped forward, as if competing with the scattered bushes and the dancing grasses. An occasional deer could be seen grazing and twitching its ears nervously; flocks of weaver noisily partaking in a complex nest-building spree up the thorn acacia tree … this, Natty thought to herself, was a ride worth her time.

“Loving the scenery?” Robert interrupted her thoughts, smiling broadly at her.

“I can’t help it, Robby. How could such sweet times be so marred with tension, gangs, police and all?”

“I keep asking myself the same question; but remember the police haven’t tracked us down yet. For all we know, nobody recognized either of us.”

“Do you think Hughen will sing?”

“No,” Robert said, watching the Table Mountain. “He wouldn’t want to risk a jail sentence by admitting he helped rob a vault of millions’ worth of gems.”

The ticket man passed near them and demanded their tickets. When they handed them over, he scrutinized them and handed them back and then waked forward between the seats.

Neither of the two relaxed lovebirds saw him take out his phone and call hurriedly, turning to glance over his shoulder at them.

The teenage shabbily-dressed boy with unkempt hair ran to Natty and smiled hopefully at her. She brushed strands of hair from her face and turned to see whether Robert was catching up, but seeing him still at the cell-phone shop counter, she decided to wait for a few more minutes while she tanned her skin a bit longer in the hot sun.

“Ten rands for your bag, Madam!” said the boy, enthusiasm showing in his eyes. “Let me carry it for you!”

“No, thanks,” Natty said, smiling back politely. “I have my partner with me, and we are taking a taxi.”

“Five rands, then,” he insisted. “I’ll carry it for you for five!”

“No need, really …”

Robert was coming out of the shop, stuffing some mobile phone registration cards in his front shirt pocket. “What is it?” Robert asked when he caught up.

“The boy is offering to carry the bag for us for five rands, but I am telling him we really don’t need …”

“Three rands, Sir!” the boy interrupted, eyeing Robert the way a vulture would eye a newly-discovered carcass.

“Fine, young man; no problem. Easy with the bag! Take it across the highway.”

The boy grabbed the bag and heaved it up his shoulders, then started to cross the highway swiftly, followed by Robert and Natty. He stopped by a row of cabs and hailed one, lowering the bag on the pavement. A dark-blue cab drove over and stopped. The driver got out and took the bag, opened the trunk and laid it inside carefully. Robert fished five rands and handed it to the teenager, who beamed with joy.

“Bridge Beach Guesthouse,” Robert said, holding the door open for Natty.

“Okay,” grunted the cab driver.

“Thank you sir!” the boy said as he rushed back to cross the highway. He eventually ran back to the train station to where a slim, well-dressed man was waiting for him.

“Bridge Beach Guesthouse,” the boy said, smiling hopefully. “That’s where they are headed.”

The man nodded and handed the boy some coins, and then dialed a number on his phone and waited patiently.

STRANGERS AT BRIDGE BEACH

“I’ve always loved Cape Town,” Robert said, “the city of my youth. Never got tired of my uncle’s motorboat as he took us for rides into the ocean on weekends … and then swimming—especially Sunday afternoons.”

“You must have had terrific times!”

“We sure did. I hope you and I will get time for some fun at the beach while our blissful time lasts!”

“Won’t that be lovely?”

Bridge Beach Guesthouse was a small comfortable inn standing some fifty meters from the beach set in a sparse palm forest. With the large bedroom windows overlooking the dancing waves, the inn was the perfect hub for anyone needing relief from the busy, dusty city life. It boasted a clean pool with beach chairs and umbrellas, a beautiful lobby with friendly staff: all this was set in the perfect landscape; and Natty and Robert envisioned a cool, relaxed stay ahead.

Enjoying the cool breeze, the two relaxed in a magnificent patio that Natty felt had no difference from the ones she had been in, particularly in the US. It had a few cream-colored couches surrounded by similarly colored boxes bearing house-plants: all resting on a multi-colored marble floor under a fancy roof of polished timber on which crawled dark-green climbers. The palm canopy instilled a sense of calm that diminished the feelings of tension and anxiety.

As they lazed around on the couches, they talked about everything and nothing in particular; this seemed to Natty to be the most enjoyable evening of her life: not because of the mission ahead of them, but because of the fact that she was here with a man she’d fallen in love with. Moreover, they were under a palm canopy on one of the most beautiful places on the South African coastline.

However, even the most beautiful times get messed up sometimes, no matter how perfect the setup may seem.

Robert peered between the palms. Directly ahead in the ocean—about one kilometer from where they sat—was an island on which stood a big cabin set in a cluster of trees. He could see a motor boat coming from the island, heading for the shore, leaving behind the familiar V-shaped wake of frothing water. It took a few minutes for it to reach the beach, and Robert saw two men come out of it. One was tall, broad-shouldered and wore a snow-white vest and grey sports shorts while the other was slightly shorter, fat and had a cowboy hat over his round small head.

The cowboy towed the boat on the jetty and then the two headed straight for where Robert and Natty sat.

“We got company, Nat,” Robert said in a low tone.

Natty turned around and caught sight of the two men walking around a sparkling swimming pool and advancing towards the inn patio.

“Coming to the inn, I guess,” said Natty without much interest.

“No. I have a bad feeling about this…”

The two men came up and paused right outside the patio.

“Good evening, Mr. Bhekifa and Miss Norman,” said the cowboy, showing small glistening teeth in what he imagined to be a smile, then continued, “I am Solomon, and my friend here is Jay. We came to take you two away from here. Look, in a matter of minutes the police will be arriving here in blaring sirens, looking for you.”

Natty almost jumped out of her skin. She glanced at Robert, who was frowning, looking quizzed.

“Who the hell are you, and what are you talking about?” Robert demanded, sitting back.

Jay, the tall broad-shouldered man remained still, somewhat as if carved out of stone while Solomon fished a crumpled newspaper out of his coat pocket and flung it onto Robert’s lap.

It was a copy of The Cape Today. Robert and Natty stared at the front headline:

PRIVATE CLUB MUGGERS EXPOSED; UNIVERSITY LECTURERS-TURNED-THIEVES

Their photos were plastered under the headline alongside an in-depth story that gave an account of the golf club theft.

Natty flushed deep pink and stared at Robert, who turned and stared up at the two strangers. He then got to his feet.

“Suppose you tell me more: who are you two in this affair?”

Solomon pushed back his hat and mopped his face with a soiled handkerchief.

“We are on your side. Look, we are wasting time. See that island over there?” his thumb jerked over his shoulder as he pointed at the island. “Once we are there, everything will be explained. Come on, now, we are wasting time.”

“Hey we can’t just—”

Robert stopped short as in the distance, a fast-approaching sound of police siren came floating through the palms. They had been located.

Natty sprang to her feet, an urgent look in her face.

“Let’s go with them, Robert!” she said.

Jay spoke for the first time; his voice was surprisingly high-pitched.

“You heard the lady,” he snapped, cocking his head as he and Solomon started back towards the boat.

Robert, seeing they were unarmed, took Natty by hand and half ran after the two strange men.

CHAPTER SIX

HELPLESS AT THE ISLAND

As Jay moored the boat on a jetty right at the edge of the big island, Natty stood on the sand and paused to look ahead. A big modern deluxe cabin loomed ahead in the dusk, silhouetted against a Prussian-blue sky. Its windows were orange-lit from the inside.

“Just follow me,” said Solomon soothingly, walking past them up the path towards the front of the cabin.

When they neared the porch, Natty was surprised to see a small blue-and-white helicopter a parked a few meters from the front door of the cabin. Before she could ask what on earth this place was, Solomon ushered them into the posh living room.

Seated on a leather couch, a glass in his hand, was Abraham of Groter Bouwers. Natty saw Robert stiffen, and she aware of her thumping heart.

Abraham rose to his feet as they came in.

“Well, well, here you are! Do come in and make yourselves comfortable!” he said, then nodded at Solomon who disappeared into an inner room.

“So it’s you!” Natty exclaimed, annoyed. “What is the meaning of this?”

Abraham maintained his cool, visibly unmoved.

“Can I offer you anything to drink?” he asked.

Natty shook her head. “No thanks.”

Robert stepped forward and looked down at Abraham. “Mr. Abraham,” he began, controlling his rising emotions. “So you’ve betrayed us to the police so that we’d have no option but to play parallel with your whims? How brilliant of you!”

Abraham rose and crossed over to the small magnificent bar on the wall. He poured himself a stiff drink and turned around.

“Come now, fellas, let’s act rational. Like it or not, right now I am the only one who can help you both.”

“Really?” demanded Natty. “And what’s in it for you?”

Abraham waved to a couch. “Sit down please. There is so much you don’t know, Miss Norman, and it all begun with your father.”

Natty sat down and shrugged. “Okay. Go ahead.”

Abraham sighed. “Miss Norman, your father took something of great value from the company, but fortunately, you two broke into a vault and redeemed it. I must commend you for such bravery and intellect.”

“My dad?” she shot back, her lips trembling. “Took the gems from your company? Now that’s funny!”

“Yes, young lady. You see, it was arranged between your father, Mr. King and the company to find those stones, hidden somewhere in an old house. Mr. King is the owner of that house, and your father’s job was to use his expertise to locate the exact position where the stones were hidden—which he did so well—but he then decided to make a run for it alone.”

“What? That’s a lie! My father couldn’t have possibly been in league with drug peddlers!” Natty was now livid with fury.

Abraham burst in laughter.

“Ah, I see you’ve been listening to gossip instead of doing a good research, my dear,” he said, an amused look in his eyes. “Of course, there are people who have always been keen on tainting the name of Groter Bouwers. They have, however, never presented proof to show that anyone in the company—or Mr. Daniel—ever peddled drugs.”

“If you do–and I’m inclined to think that you do–you would cover your tracks so well … syndicates always do,” Natty replied crossly.

“Syndicates?” Abraham smiled and sipped his drink. “Suppose you stop letting your mind run wildly, and …”

“Suppose you cut the crap and say what you want with us?” Robert cut in, his patience wearing thin. Abraham regarded him for a moment and then shrugged.

“Bhekifa, my boy, you know what I want, don’t you?”

“And you don’t imagine we will hand it to you on a silver platter, do you?” Robert sneered.

“Yes you will,” Abraham’s voice had an edge that made Natty stiffen. “You’ve got no other option: it’s either that or you go to prison. Miss Norman wouldn’t want to go to prison and leave her ailing mother to suffer alone; would you, my dear?”

“And what will prevent us from telling the whole truth to the police? Then they will take your precious gems away from you and all of us will lose. Tell me now, what will stop us?”

Before Abraham could answer, the front door opened and a giant of a man entered, followed by Jay. The former was about six feet seven, powerfully built and completely bald; he was wearing an executive grey suit and expensive-looking leather shoes. His eyes were small and piercing; a long nose, a ruthless mouth and a firm chin gave him the look of a determined and thorough—probably uncanny entrepreneur. A big stuffed backpack was clenched in his hand. He paused, frowned at Natty and Robert and licked his lips. Looking at him, Natty could sense power and prestige hanging around him like mist.

“Because we will reward you and your boyfriend with the easiest dough you’ve ever earned,” said the giant, his shifty eyes narrow and sharp. He turned and snapped his fingers at Jay, who nodded and got out of the room. Then the huge man threw the big backpack at Robert, who stepped back to catch it in midair. It was surprisingly heavy; this giant must be a powerhouse.

“I am Daniel King,” said the giant. “There is 4.5 million dollars in that bag—in cash. Go ahead, open it!”

Robert stared at the bag and then handed it to Natty, who unzipped it. Both of them stared at bundles and bundles of banknotes; Natty was amazed that someone could have so much money as to treat such an amount in the bag like a load of trash.

Abraham got to his feet and took the bag from Natty, zipped it and placed it on the small mahogany table.

“Please understand that we could have used other means to get the gems from you but I persuaded my partners to consider rewarding you for your efforts. Were it not for you, the gems might have never been found. Moreover, your Dad and I were very close, and I owe him some small significant bouts of the company’s success …” Abraham paused and shrugged again, then continued, “Of course, you can always choose to go to jail for breaking into a secured executive government-funded club—while impersonating a government institution—and stealing the state’s jewels…”

“So,” Robert interrupted, “What happens to us once we give you the stones?”

“Good question!” said Daniel, easing his bulk on an executive armchair, his eyes on Natty. “Remember the chopper you saw outside? It will airlift you to Pretoria, where you will find a flight to Egypt prepared for you… Your travel documents have been processed already. Once in Egypt, my private charter company will fly you to the US. No question asked; VIP treatment.”

His gaze shifted to Robert. “As for you, Bhekifa, we will fly you to the country of your choice. If Miss Norman wants you to join her…” he trailed off and lifted his massive shoulders.

“Why Egypt? Why not straight to the US?” Robert asked suspiciously.

“Overseas flights from here have to be government-regulated. I can’t smuggle you out without the authorities watching. However, I am licensed to conduct business flights to and from Egypt. If I was a drug trafficker, the government wouldn’t tolerate that.”

“You are willing to do all that for us for a mere ten million?” Natty asked incredulously.

Daniel sighed. “You see, Miss Norman, we are businessmen and profit is our business. Now the two of you get four and a half, Abraham and I get five each. Now do we have a deal?”

Robert turned and glanced at Natty, then looked at Abraham straight in the eye.

“On a few conditions…” he said.

“What?” demanded Abraham, leaning forward.

Robert hesitated and then blurted out, “You will board Natty on the plane; once I am sure she is on her way to the US, I will take you to where the diamonds are. You can have them, and we’ll part ways.”

“But Robert….!” Natty started.

“Yes, Natty,” Robert said firmly, holding her hand. “It’s time you attended to your mother. Take the full amount with you.”

“I can’t! I can’t leave without you!”

“Well well!” said Abraham, smiling wolfishly. “How sweet! Didn’t know that true love still exists!”

“And how would you?” Robert retorted. “The only thing you care about is money and ….” He trailed of as Jay barged in, panting.

“Police boat has been spotted coming in this direction,” he announced, pausing to breathe. “Someone must have seen us coming here!”

Abraham jumped to his feet. “Start the chopper!” he snapped and then turned to Natty and Robert. “Come with me, no time to waste.” With that, he shooed them out of the cabin towards the helicopter, where Jay was already stooping over the controls.

“Get in!” he said. “I’ll join you in an hour in Pretoria.”

The blades were now rotating fast, making the nearby palms twist in an eerie night dance. As Natty climbed into the helicopter followed closely by Robert, she harbored mixed feelings too complicated for her to sort out.

“Bring it on,” she whispered to herself, biting her under lip.

NIGHT DIALOG

As the helicopter lifted, Natty looked down on the dark panorama of Cape Town, lit by thousands of multicolored evening lights. This seemed like a real dream; varied events were taking place in rapid succession, barely leaving enough room to think.

She turned to Robert, who sat quietly beside her, his hand clasped in hers, his eyes staring ahead into the starry horizon. Natty felt lucky to be in the company of a man who really cared for her, who was ready to sacrifice his freedom and comfort for her. She leaned and rested her head on his chest. They remained like that until Jay landed the helicopter on a vast compound in front of a big white villa, somewhere in Pretoria.

The luxury villa was built in a sophisticated, urban architectural style; everything smelt of money and power. More of the company’s property, thought Natty.

The two alighted and stood on the paved yard several meters away from the chopper. Coming out of the villa to receive them was a young attractive woman, smiling widely as she opened her arms widely.

“Come on in, please,” she said in a gay voice. “I am Emma. Mr. King will be joining you in a matter of minutes!”

Robert flashed his most charming smile.

“Hey, thank you, Emma! I am Robert and this here is Natty, my girlfriend.”

Emma smiled shyly and extended her arm to the entrance hall.

“Get inside, please.”

They were ushered into a spacious living room with elegant stylish furniture and red gold-decorated drapes.

Emma motioned them to the left of the room where a dining set was set and some cutlery arranged.

“Dinner is ready,” she said. “You are welcome.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

They sat down and enjoyed an unusual but delicious dinner of rice with chicken, onions and tomatoes, curried lentils and greens. The girl was some cook, Robert observed.

“This might be the last night we see one another, Robert!” said Natty, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Do you still realize that?”

“What, honey?” said Robert, raising her eyebrows. “You have no plans of getting back with me anytime soon?”

“Come on, darling, you know I do, but … do you trust these guys?”

Robert sat back. “As a matter of fact I don’t, and … come to think about it, Natty; the conditions I gave them will certainly work.”

Natty toyed with her spoon. “I don’t like it, Robert—not one bit. These guys might pull a fast one on us—”

“Hey,” Robert reassured, patting her arm. “Everything will be fine, I promise you. Just get into that plane; it’s the only way out. The rest …. Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”

Natty gazed at Robert for a long time then said, “You are the perfect man a girl could hope to have. You do know that, don’t you?”

“You give me too much credit, Honey,” Robert said, grinning. “Whatever I am doing is the least a man can do for such a beautiful woman. I may—and note I say ‘may’—lose you, but I’ll be contented that I finally fell in love with ….”

A door opened and Abraham came into room, followed by King.

“Bravo!” King said, feigning a smile. “I see you have warmed up to our somewhat sudden friendship. Did you enjoy your dinner?”

“The dinner we did enjoy, honestly, thank you,” said Robert, and then added, “But as for the friendship … that remains to be seen.” Abraham produced a cigar and lit it. “You think so?” he said, letting smoke drift from his nostrils. “A nice chunk of cash… don’t you think that is a great sign of friendship?”

The girl came over and began clearing the table. When she was through, King broke the silence.

“Buddies,” he began. “This will be our last meeting together. I want to make sure everything is clear so that everybody may have an easy night.”

He turned to Natty and went on, “Miss Norman, Emma will show you to your room; there you will find everything you need for the trip. I am sure you are going to be surprised; everything has been taken care of.

“You will depart tomorrow at seven in my own Citation XLS plane. No-one else will be in that plane except you, Jay the flight engineer, the pilot and co-pilot. I will retain the backpack tonight but before you depart tomorrow morning, I’ll hand it over to Jay, and he will have custody of it until you arrive in Cairo; only then will you have the privilege of handling your money in full. Once you arrive there, Jay will make sure you board the plane booked for you … you will be in the US of A in a matter of hours.”

“And why should I trust this Jay guy?” Natty demanded.

King barked out a hard laugh. “Jay is the most efficient and the most trustworthy assistant I have. You can definitely trust him.”

Natty shrugged. “Yeah, yeah … it’s not like I have any other alternative, do I?”

“No you don’t,” King said, his eyes focused on her face. “You really have nothing to complain about, Miss Norman. I am flying you out in my personal business jet! You can’t hope to get a better deal anywhere else on this planet.” His shifty eyes darted from her to Robert, and then he went on, “Make sure you are up in time. Departure will be 7.00 am. As for Robert, well … we shall see what to do.”

He then got to his feet and went out of the room.

Emma came up and smiled at Natty. “Come with me, Miss Norman,” she said. “I’ll show you to your room.”

Natty turned to Robert. “I’ll be back,” she said.

TURNING THE TABLES

The first thing that caught Natty’s eyes when she stepped into the bedroom was her father’s laptop lying on a small table. Intrigued, she walked over and picked it. Of course it was the same laptop she had left back in the forest cabin in Calmness Private Resort. She went to the wardrobe and opened one of the two doors.

All her clothes were there!

They were not only well hung, they were neatly pressed. She opened the other wardrobe door; in it were her two travelling bags and backpack. These people must be thorough!

There was also a small mahogany desk, a chair and a king-sized bed.

However, Natty had a nagging feeling that something was amiss. Why were they doing all this? Was it out of gratitude as they had explained? Still, Natty couldn’t help being pleased to see all her personal effects reinstated when she least expected.

Below the second wardrobe door was a drawer. Natty tagged at it; it was locked. She then started searching all over the room, not at all sure why she was searching for the key; she just searched.

It took her twenty good minutes to find the small key. Just when she was about to give up, she discovered a drawer built into the end of the bed that faced the wall. She grabbed it and opened the drawer.

Inside were three empty backpacks, were laid flat: these bags were identical to the one that held King’s money. Aside from that was a heap of files and a box containing bunches of different types of tagged keys. She closed the drawer and sat on the couch, feeling suddenly tired.

There came a knock at the door; Robert came in and whistled.

“Gee!” he exclaimed softly. “These goons know how to live, don’t they?”

When Natty showed him what she had found—the personal belongs she had left in Krugersdorp forest cabin, his eyebrows arched towards his hair.

“Pretty organized, aren’t they?” he asked.

“Yeah, that begs the question: why?”

“Well … I am not sure …” then he shrugged. “Hey, Natty, I am here to help you pack!”

“Now?” she asked, a distant look in her face. Then suddenly her face lit up.

“Let’s go for a breath of fresh air, darling. It’s our last night here together!”

Robert grinned. “Nice idea, Honey!”

Holding hands, they came out into a brightly-lit corridor and went out through a door that led to the back of the villa. There was a big flower garden lit by bluish fluorescent ball lights and a vast lawn beyond that stretched out into the darkness.

The two walked slowly alongside the building; and were about to turn left and follow a paved path when they passed a window whose drapes had been pulled back. They paused and peered inside: Jay, Solomon and two other men were talking animatedly, smoking and holding tall wine glasses.

“Clever devil!” Solomon was saying. “He succeeded to fool them into buying that fifteen million story!”

One of the other men gaped at him. “It wasn’t so?” he asked blankly.

Solomon puffed at his cigarette. “Of course it wasn’t, you dimwit!” he sneered and went on in a quieter tone, “Those are no ordinary diamonds; you don’t go with the typical price-per-carat: those are the reputed Kerlberg’s Gems—three hundred years old—worthy fifty million American dollars”

Natty and Robert stiffened and looked at one another.

“Listen,” Solomon went on. “I am dead tired; I am going to bed. ‘Night, fellas!” then he went out of the room.

Jay waited for a few seconds then faced the two men.

“You two sure about tomorrow?” he asked, observing the glowing end of his cigarette. “King will arrive before seven with the money.”

“But how do we disappear with the stash, Jay?”

Jay smoked some more, his face expressionless.

“You forgot so fast? We are going to crash the plane.”

Natty froze. Had she heard right? Robert gripped her arm, but they continued eavesdropping.

The two men shifted nervously.

“Relax,” Jay said, sitting still. “Damn it, you are experienced pilots and sky-divers! You know the stuff: right altitude, then swiiiish! We jump and leave the lady strapped to her seat!”

Natty felt cold sweat run trickle the side of her neck. These morons were planning to abandon her in a plane and skydive! They would take her money with them and leave her to die!

She felt Robert suddenly release her arm.

“We are supposed to have a stop-over in Nairobi,” Jay went on, “Of course we won’t reach that far. My man will be coming to pick us in Tanzania.”

The two men were staring at him wide-eyed.

“Think about it!” Jay pressed on. “It’s pretty easy! We have four and a half million to share between us!”

“Okay,” said one of the men, sounding somewhat excited. “I guess it’s time I accepted to start a new life.”

Jay smiled his ghostly smile. “That’s my man!” He faced the other man and raised his brow enquiringly. “You in this?” he asked.

“Yes, of course.” replied the man, his face shining with tension. “For such an amount, I’ll be ready to jump off the moon.”

“Now I’m gonna strangle these idiots!” Robert hissed furiously.

“No!” Natty whispered, grabbing his sleeve. “Wait!”

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Jay was saying, “I need to take a nap.”

The pilot and his co-pilot exited the room, moving like a couple of sleep-walkers.

Natty tugged at Robert’s sleeve. “Let’s go back to my room, I have an idea!” she said.

When they returned inside Natty’s bedroom, Robert locked the door and looked wildly at her.

“What’s the idea? Did you hear what those goons are planning to do?”

She looked at him anxiously. “Yes I did, we have to do something about it.”

“Okay, please tell me, what is on your mind?”

“A hunch.”

Robert frowned. “What an odd time to be getting hunches!”

“Listen, Robert. I don’t think King knows about what Jay is planning; there’s no way he’ll destroy his $11 million plane because of $4.5 million. Moreover, the matter will be investigated and will surely work out against him!”

“What if we tell him what we just overheard? The scumbag is using us to get fifty freaking million bucks!”

Natty threw up her arms. “So you think he will listen to us? He will call our bluff! Something tells me that this man is as dangerous as a rattlesnake!”

“Okay, what do you propose we do?”

“First off, we switch bags.”

Robert stared at her. “What?”

Natty went to the drawer and pulled out one of the backpacks. “A replica of King’s bag!” Robert exclaimed.

“These bags were under lock and key. I found the key by sheer luck.”

“How sweet!” he said. “Now how do you propose we get into King’s room? He left and won’t be back until tomorrow morning.”

“This is where I need your help,” she said. “We have to locate his room—and break into it. We take this bag into his room—it will be stuffed with my clothes but not completely full. We open the bag containing the money, take out some bundles and put them in my bag so as to occupy the remaining space. Then bring the original bag back here. We will then move the money into my own backpack. No-one will suspect. That is, hoping they won’t check deep inside.”

“That’s clever but… I wonder if we can make it…”

Natty began to pace up and down the room, hands behind her back. “Somehow … we have to!”

Robert said, almost absently, “Why are these files placed here? Why place his business files in a guest’s bedroom…?”

He then paused and stared fixedly at Natty, his eyes widening. “Of course! Now I see!” he exclaimed.

Natty stared back blankly.

“This must be his spare bedroom—whatever—he must be spending time here often!”

Natty smiled faintly. “So those keys…” “…Must be spare keys for the entire villa!” Robert offered.

Natty hurriedly snatched the box and spilled the keys out onto the bed. The tags were marked in letters and numbers but they still they needed to find King’s room.

Natty snapped her fingers. “Now I know what to do in order to locate King’s room!”

She opened the desk drawer and took a notepad and pen. Sitting down, she wrote a quick note:

I am grateful for what you have done for us, but I am impressed to note that you will collect $50M so easily without breaking a sweat.

PS: Your aircraft crew … I wouldn’t trust them a bit if I were you, but then I am not you.

PPS: Take care of my Robert, and you will collect your prized stones. So long.

Natty.

She folded the note and stapled it.

“Wait here,” she said and made it for the door. “I need this placed in King’s room, and the girl will do it for me. That’s it!”

Robert grinned with relief. “Brilliant!”

Natty found Emma cleaning the kitchen. When Emma saw Natty she straightened and adjusted her apron.

“Miss Norman!” she said courteously. “Do you need anything?”

Natty flashed the smile she reserved for girls.

“Oh, yes, Emma, thank you! You see, I forgot to give some very important business information to Mr. King, and since I’ll leave early in the morning, I need a favor please.” She showed her the note.

Emma smiled warmly. “Oh, you want that delivered to him? No problem, I will do it.”

Natty hesitated and then smiled apologetically.

“No, Emma. I need it placed in his room. That’s what he would want.”

Emma wiped her brow. “I do not have the keys to his room.”

Natty’s smile held. “It’s okay, Emma. Just put it under the door, please. Can you possibly do it now? I’d be so grateful!”

“Sure, Miss Norman, as you wish.” She wiped her hands with a towel and took the note.

“Thank you!”

“You are welcome; follow me please.”

Natty followed the girl beyond the living room and up a flight of stairs. On the landing, Emma paused in front of a door marked ‘L1-K-1’. She bent and pushed the note under the door, and then turned and smiled at Natty.

“I hope you are satisfied now, Miss Norman.”

“Definitely, Emma,” she said, beaming. “You are great!”

Emma blushed but looked pleased with the compliment. “My pleasure.”

Natty memorized the room code instantly.

The two girls then walked back to ground floor and after wishing one another a good night, parted ways.

Robert was excited when she told him she had succeeded. Together, they searched for the key and found it.

“We now wait for everybody to go to sleep,” said Robert. “Then we make the switch.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

DARING THE ODDS

Natty was woken up by the sound of the alarm-clock at five. Feeling groggy, she dragged herself out of bed and into the shower.

She felt as if she was in a dream. So many things had happened; she knew she ought to have called her mother by now but she didn’t know what to tell her. She had to wait until she had secured the US flight….

Then she remembered. She wouldn’t be flying to the US—yet! She was headed for disaster; the plane would crash!

She scrubbed herself with vigor, shivering at the thought of jumping from thousands of feet high in the air.

Thirty minutes later she came out of her room dragging her travelling bag and her brown backpack on her shoulders. She met Robert on the dining table and the two sat down to a nervous breakfast: they ate so little, in silence. When they were through and Emma had cleared the table, Robert leaned over and squeezed Natty’s hand.

“Sure you will do it, Natty?” he asked tenderly. “We can always change our…”

“No!” she said firmly. “This is the only way, and I will do it. Don’t worry about me, I’ll handle King.”

The sound of a vehicle pulling up outside indicated that King had arrived. A minute later, he came in followed by Abraham.

“Good morning, Miss Norman. I presume you are ready?” King asked, a cheerful note in his voice.

Natty advanced a few steps towards King and paused.

“I am not leaving this room without a parachute,” she said, crossing her arms.

“What was that again?” he said taken aback. “Come on, you still don’t trust us?”

“Come on, Miss Norman,” added Abraham, sounding faintly disconcerted. “You don’t suppose our plane is safe?”

“You heard the lady,” Robert said, stepping forward. “It’s a safety precaution we are keen on observing.”

King looked past Robert to Natty and asked, “Is that right, Miss Norman?”

“Yeah,” she replied firmly. “A chute or no deal.”

King glanced at Abraham and licked his lips. “Fine,” he said at last, then headed for the door leading out into the corridor. “Wait here.”

He returned a moment later holding a Mildrew blue-and-yellow backpack container in one hand and the money backpack in the other hand. Looking at the backpack, Natty felt a wave of tension. Had King unzipped it? Would he sense that this was not the original bag?

“Do you know how to deploy this?” King asked, handing the chute container to Natty.

“Thank you,” she said. “I know enough theory, but then I don’t have to use it after all, do I?”

“You had better strap on now. Time is almost up. Let’s see how much theory you know,” said King, cocking his head.

Natty took the backpack and placed her arms and legs through the respective straps, fixed the chest strap carefully and finally the leg straps. Looking at her, King put on a foxy grin.

“I will have to admit it; you are a smart, young lady,” he said.

Abraham watched thoughtfully; then said, “You got your father’s brains. Too bad you can’t come back to South Africa; we could have used your talents.”

Natty grabbed the handle of her bag. “Miracles do happen, Mr. Abraham; you never know,” she said.

Robert got hold of her backpack.

King clapped his hands. “Let’s go now, shall we?”

The four walked out of the room and down a corridor that opened out into a vast airstrip area. To the right was a glass-walled hangar with parts of an aircraft visible.

Straight ahead, Natty could see the plane: a sleek-looking Cessna taxing out of the ramp towards a runway extending far to the north. Natty wondered how this businessman would feel when that cute plane would be reduced to ashes by his most trusted Jay.

King led them down a paved path towards a small building sitting next to the ramp; that had to be the terminal. A few men were having a conversation there and when they saw

King, they walked along the terminal front and entered the control building.

Jay came out of the terminal holding a rucksack. When he saw Natty, his eyes popped out for the slightest moment and then his expression went back to normal.

He has been surprised to see me wearing the parachute, she thought.

King handed him the ‘money backpack’.

“See you tomorrow, Jay. We have supplies to ferry,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” he said, taking the travelling bag from Natty.

Abraham offered his hand to Natty who shook it. “Well, so long, Miss Norman. Give my regards to your Mother.”

“Thank you,” she replied then and flashed her most charming smile to King.

“One more thing,” she said. “Can I strap my backpack on the seat next to me? A girl has to have a few things close to her.

King nodded. “Jay will help you with of that,” he said, extending his hand.

They shook hands.

Natty turned and hugged Robert passionately. “You and I will be together soon, I promise.”

“I know, Honey,” said Robert. “Go now! Safe flight!”

King saluted and watched Natty and Jay walk towards the plane.

DARING THE HEIGHTS

Natty was not expecting to find four men in the plane, so when she saw Solomon coming out of the baggage compartment, she wondered whether there had been a change of plans.

No-one else will be in that plane except you, Jay the flight engineer, the pilot and co-pilot…

What was Solomon doing here?

“Good morning, Madam,” he said cheerfully. “We should be leaving in a matter of seconds.”

Was he in this too?

Aloud he said, “Good morning, Solomon. I didn’t know you’d be travelling with us.”

“Mr. Abraham thought I should come along and make sure everything runs smoothly.”

Jay entered the cabin and closed the door. He took Natty’s backpack and strapped it on the seat next to hers, and then entered the cockpit.

Before long, the jet roared along the runway at a break-neck speed and lifted its nose into the foggy atmosphere. Try as much as she could, Natty couldn’t relax. The thought that she would be using her parachute for the first time was too unnerving. She glanced at Solomon who was seated on the first seat behind the door. Last night during the conspiracy, he hadn’t been in the room. If that meant he wasn’t part of setup, then he was in a more grave danger: he wasn’t wearing a parachute.

The plane stabilized and rose higher above the clouds. The view outside the window began to appear hazy.

‘Relax,’ Natty whispered to herself. All she needed to do was act normal, wait until the drama started, let the men jump and then rise and jump after them. She wondered would they would stop her, now that she had her chute strapped on. She remained in that state until two hours or so slipped by, and then she jerked her mind to attention.

She glanced at her wristwatch. It was half past eight!

Solomon turned his head to her. “You are wearing your chute?” he asked, smiling. “I don’t think there was need for that.”

“We are wearing ours too,” announced Jay, coming into the cabin. He had a parachute strapped on, and a ghostly grin on his face.

Solomon stared at him. “What the hell for?” he asked, unbuckling his seat belt.

Jay cocked his head. “Because we are wise. The girl is wise too, but not wise enough,” he replied.

Solomon wiped his brow. “What the hell are you yammering about?” he demanded.

“Zip up!” he barked, his face turning ugly. “Damn it, Solomon, why did you have to come along? Why this morning?”

Solomon stared up at Jay, and then looked at Natty blankly.

“They are crashing this plane, Solomon,” said Natty, her heart thumping. “They planned jump, leaving me here.”

That statement startled Jay. He frowned at her and demanded, “How the hell did you learn that?”

Natty glanced at Solomon: blood had left his face.

“I overheard, Jay. You want to skydive and take away my money with you.”

Solomon stared at her. “You knew this, yet you didn’t tell Mr. King?”

“What for? He trusts Jay with his life—”

“He does,” Jay said and chuckled, a sound that chilled Natty.

What happened next was so fast that Natty lost sense of time.

Springing forward in a speed that didn’t seem his own, Solomon took Jay by complete surprise. His left fist smashed against Jay’s jaw with all his force behind it.

Jay arched backwards, falling on his elbow.

Solomon, livid with rage, went down after him, his hands seeking to grab Jay’s throat. Jay’s knee shot upwards and sank into Solomon’s belly, heaving him over his head.

Solomon landed on his back but was back on his feet in a second, too swift for his weight. Jay jumped back, a gun suddenly in his hand. He pointed it to Solomon, who had his back to the cockpit, panting hard.

“Easy, Fatso,” Jay sneered, spitting blood. “We are going down, and you won’t stop us.”

“Don’t!” Natty shouted, attempting to distract Jay. The trick worked. He began to turn his head to glance at her, cursing, “Shut up, you bitch!”

Solomon took the advantage and jumped forward, but before he could reach Jay, the gun went off twice. One of the bullets went through the side of Solomon’s neck, tearing some tendons, and then flew into the cockpit and shattered part of the instrument panel. The second bullet caught the pilot behind his head. He slumped forward on the controls.

“Hey!” screamed the co-pilot. “What the bloody hell is happening back there?”

Solomon lay on the floor, his hand clutching his bleeding neck. Jay was about to jump over him and step into the cockpit to grab the backpack when Solomon’s foot shot up and crashed into Jay’s crotch.

Jay went down heavily, groaning in agony and then went silent as his head hit the floor. His gun flew, hit the floor and bounced, going off twice. The plane’s nose pointed down.

“We are going down!” the co-pilot’s voice came up shrilly. “Controls and engine damaged!”

“Get up, Miss Norman!” said Solomon feebly, lying in a pool of blood. “Jump!”

She tugged at her seatbelt and attempted to unfasten it.

It didn’t budge.

Panicking, she tried the lock with all her strength but it didn’t open. The she remembered Jay’s voice:

You know the stuff: right altitude, then swiiiish! We jump and leave the lady strapped to her seat!

She had been directed to sit on a seat whose belt would never unlock. She was sure Jay had planned it.

“The belt is stuck!” she screamed, feeling sick with panic. “Help me, Solomon!”

Smoke was coming out of the cockpit, and the co-pilot came out, staggering and coughing, gripping the ‘money backpack’.

“I … can’t ….” Solomon’s voice was fading off. “Lost too much blood …” then he let go of his hand and closed his eyes.

The plane span and threw the men around the cabin, then uprighted itself. Looking outside the window, Natty saw the forest rising towards the plane.

Then she remembered. Inside the side pocket of her backpack was a pocket knife that belonged to her father; it was attached to the keys of her university apartment. She reached out for the pocket, unzipped it and produced the keys.

“Not so fast, Pretty,” said the co-pilot, grinning evilly. He reached for her keys but the gun banged once more. The bullet threw him sideways and he slumped against the seat. Natty heard Solomon sigh before he released the gun. Looking at him, she knew he was dead.

Natty cut through the tough straps with a strength she had never imagined she possessed. The knife was blunt, the plane was going down fast, her eyes watered and her hands trembled.

She cut and cut….

The belt snapped. She jumped to her feet, unstrapped her backpack and flung one of its straps around his neck so that it hung on her front. Rushing to the door, she opened it and jumped. The aircraft whizzed past her and went spinning towards the jungle.

The ice-cold air stunned her. For a moment, her mind went blank then seeing the tree tops below, she remembered the instructions she had read….

Arching her body, she located and pulled the release handle attached to her right shoulder strap. She let herself fall, the backpack hanging down from her neck, chocking on the wind; then realized she was too close to the ground. The main canopy would never deploy in time! Feverishly, she grabbed the reserve deployment handle and pulled as hard as she could. As the canopy opened above her, she felt her body lose acceleration as the chute slowed her down, but the chute had opened a bit too late.

She felt thorny branches of a tree hit her head; a few lines of her chute snapped, making her fall through the trees uncontrollably. As she hit the wet ground, she felt her head explode in bright lights before losing consciousness.

(…continued in Final Part)


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