SANDTON, SOUTH AFRICA
M1. Black Mercedes, 2SLS smoothly cut a path down the freeway. Winter fires smothered the view of the one kilometre square stretch of shacks to their left. No wind stirred. The Dark City brooded in its cancerous smoke. To the far left of the ghetto, a mere two miles away, the red sun reflected on the glass office buildings of Sandton City momentarily, as the car descended into the valley.
‘Where are we going?’ said Annetjie.
‘Short cut. You live on Louis Botha Avenue. I live in Sandton. Lived I should say.’
Her things, he noted, consisted of a petty jumble of black clothes, make up, paraphernalia. He would burn them as soon as he could. And she lived in an apartment with two other women. Pretty miserable. Well, her life was going to change.
He glanced disdainfully at the sides of the road as he drove. The shacks of Alexandra township had encroached almost on the freeway itself: a haphazard collection of all the refuse of Western civilisation: corrugated iron, flattened Surf boxes, wire pilfered no doubt from telephone company yards, toxic asbestos sheeting.
They didn’t get far. At the turn onto the wide tar, three men stood in the way. Annetjie tensed, holding onto the seat, and stared at him with wide, brown eyes to see what he would do. The airport road was notorious for carjacking, even at eleven in the morning. But the driver of the Mercedes in his Seville Row suit, was unperturbed. He flicked the central locking mechanism on his dashboard to ‘lock’, then thought better of the idea and flipped it to ‘unlock’ again. If you were going to be car-jacked, it was no use locking your doors.
The men stood with legs apart, in long black coats that reached down to their knees. Each jabbed the long steel barrel of an AK47 into the air. On the side of the road, another man stood with his hands in the pockets of his trench coat, watching. Good, he thought smugly. He gripped the wheel tightly, took a deep breath, slowed down. ‘Friends of yours?’ he asked her.
‘It was a rhetorical question.’
In the Gauteng area carjacking was commonplace: 23 a day, 600 cars a month. Commonplace too was the brutal way they were carried out. Anywhere, anytime, at any intersection, they wouldn’t think twice to shoot you. Even outside your automatic gates while you nervously waited to enter your fortress of a home with your electric fence and Rapid Response Armed Guards radio buzzing, you were not safe.
But the man’s reaction was oddly different. He sighed with relief at the sight of them. ‘Professionals,’ he muttered. The amateurs were the ones who were trigger happy or nervous, and because of their inexperience, unpredictable. Professionals were no less dangerous–they would shoot you with no compunction, and with the minimum of fuss, but they were not likely to unless they had to. They had a job to do. If they could do it without killing and wasting ammo, or messing the seats with blood, they would. The best you could do was cooperate. Make it easier for them. Stop, get out of the car. Freeze. Let them take whatever they wanted. To hesitate, fight back, or try to ram into them, would be silly. Countless examples had been documented in the press. Woman shot through spine while trying to outdrive them. Karate black belt killed while trying to resist.
The driver stopped carefully and the three men came to life, ambling in three pre-determined directions. One towards him. The two others to cover their comrades on either side. They showed no glee at their spoils. They did this for a living. They probably were the lowest in the rung, and did the dirty work for others. The cars would be re-sprayed, engine numbers filed off and changed, then shipped off to Angola, Zimbabwe or Zambia within hours. And these men would be paid a nominal salary. The leader, as he suspected, was the unarmed man who sauntered to the front of the car, and tweaked the three pronged Mercedes sign. ‘You touch that you buggar, and you’re a goner,’ muttered the driver under his breath. But he could see that the lead carjacker was calm, assessing, as he was. Both were watching each other.
‘Good morning,’ the driver called spritely as he pressed the ‘down’ button on his window, waiting for the man’s instructions. Annetjie was biting her lip so she wouldn’t scream He hoped she would not do anything rash. He noted the old AK47 assault weapon in each carjacker’s hand. They were comfortable with the weapons, which had probably been smuggled in through Mozambique, or Angola, maybe Namibia. The wooden butts were dirty and black with sweat and soot, and the wooden stock where each man was gripping his weapon nervously, was also black with use. Only the barrels looked clean. He peered down one and saw gleaming metal. They cleaned their weapons, at least. Professionals, he confirmed again, relaxing.
‘Get out of the car. The girl too. Turn the ignition off. Leave the keys. Stand against the wall.’ The commands were given routinely, as if they had been given too many times, and had lost their meaning. The driver eased the car into ‘Park’, took the foot off the brake and opened the door. He stepped out, smiling, and motioned for Annetjie to get out too.
The three armed men moved around the vehicle and stood guard: one pointed his weapon at the driver and girl; the other two jumped into the car. The leader eased comfortably into the driver’s seat. He played with the gear shift, peered at the controls. The headlights were on, and the dash panel lit up all the instruments for him in science fiction green. ‘Any alarm system we need to know about?’ He was smiling. The driver smiled too. Both acted out the scene as if one was the car salesman and the other a prospective buyer going for a test drive.
‘By the cigarette lighter, that flashing red light. Every time you start the car, press the jack plug–see it on the keys? Into that jack over there. Or it won’t start.’
‘Thank you. Have a nice day.’ The leader looked relieved. You could see he thought this was going to be a smooth haul. He grunted a short command and the guard ran across to the car and lunged into the leather back seat, scraping his AK against the door as he did so. All inside and accounted for.
If they had been more observant, they would have noticed the unmistakeable glee on the man’s face as they slammed the doors. He didn’t look as if he had just been stranded and deprived of his most precious possession, a car worth more than a house in this topsy-turvy country where the economic upheavals of a post-Apartheid economy had created such anomalies. The leader pressed the jack as instructed into the hole and the little red light stopped blinking. Then he placed the key back in the ignition and turned it on.
It was too short a time for him to realise what happened. Perhaps he had a split second inkling that something was amiss. That he had even been tricked. The second he turned the key, 10,000 volts raced through the frame of the car seats and all four of the hijackers clattered and shook blue with the current. The man watched with curiosity, smiling still, but cautious. He had to make sure all four were thoroughly electrocuted before he pressed a switch in his pocket, turning off the juice. The wired seats stopped tingling and crackling. Fifteen seconds would kill anyone, and these bodies were all slumped in death. He took a deep breath and strode confidently towards the car. He pressed the key again and the red light flashed again. Through the window, he looked for the green display which now read DISENGAGED.
‘Ingenious,’ he said to her. ‘It works.’ There had to be a first time for everything. A fool proof method if they didn’t shoot you first. But damn inconvenient. For he now had to haul the four bodies out. Distastefully, he pulled on rubber gloves from a coat pocket and cleanly opened the car door. The leader fell towards him onto the gravel shoulder, and he hauled him out by the shoulder lapels of his jacket. Same with the others, who slumped like three bags of cement down the verges of the road. He disentangled the AK’s from each man, unwrapping their fingers gently from the stocks and triggers, then unclipped the curved magazines, pulled back the cocking handle and let the rounds fly out and ping onto the road. The weapons would have to be cleaned up, but they were in good condition. Once he was sure each was made safe, he clattered them into the boot of the car then covered them with a blanket.
He took care in case of residual electricity. But he had been assured it was quite safe. ‘Jesus,’ he muttered under his breath as he examined the back door, where the carjacker had banged it. He rubbed the small scratch there, shrugged, then leaped into the driver’s seat, adjusted it, peeled the gloves off and turned the ignition key again. It purred to a start, and he pulled the gear lever into DRIVE. Annetjie craned her neck at the four stiff bodies in the road before reluctantly slipping into the front passenger seat. He pulled out the innocuous-looking jack plug from its socket. ‘This is what we call a car jack.’
He sniffed the sour odour in the car. He could detect the dead men’s unwashed bodies, and the lingering bacon smell of their execution. He turned on the air-conditioning full, and the heating off. Not bad. He would have to give a full report. This should be marketed as an anti-carjacking device.
‘The irony however,’ he said, ‘is that it’s illegal to wire your car, you know that? To protect thieves, I suppose. Their rights can’t be violated. Bloody hell!’
‘And if they had shot us?’
‘There’s always Plan B. And talking of plans, you are not supposed to know the whereabouts of our headquarters, so would you mind blindfolding yourself with this scarf?’
He leaned over to help her and feigned placing the red cowboy scarf over her eyes, but then covered her mouth and pressed her against the back seat. She struggled for a second or two, but then slumped nicely on the floor.