An excerpt from Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

PROLOGUE

JOHANNESBURG, DECEMBER 1953

Friday night. A dirt lane on the outskirts of Yeoville, where cars came out of the city then disappeared in the direction of the four-way intersection that led to the suburbs. The girl paced out the number of steps between the mouth of the alley and the vacant lot at the far end. Some men liked to lay her down in an open field. Most preferred to position her against the wall of the dark lane itself. After the urgency left them, they got into their cars and drove back to the flat sprawl of Johannesburg suburbs; nice places, with names like Sandton, Bedfordview and Edenvale. The girl liked to feel the money in her hands for a moment before she took it to the darkest part of the alley, pulled out the loose brick she knew was there, and shoved the bills behind it.

Between men, she stood halfway down the alley—in the shadows, but easy to see if one knew where to look. Squeezed between high brick walls and strewn with crushed kaffir weeds, the lane was ideal for clients with ten minutes to spare between knocking off work and heading home.

The sweep of car headlights lit the walls of the lane at intermittent intervals. The moonlight was faint and partially blocked by the roofline of the adjacent building. She didn’t mind the gloom. It softened the hard line of her jaw and smoothed the acne scars on her right cheek. She liked the darkness. In the dark she was perfect.

The sound of feet crunching the dirt broke the quiet and the girl looked up. Car lights swept past, briefly illuminating the dirt strip. A white man stood at the end of the alley, just emerged from the vacant lot. He was tall, big across the shoulders, and still. He wasn’t so much standing in the alley as blocking it.

A chill travelled up the girl’s legs and into her belly.

“Sorry, hey. Bad timing.” Fear sharpened her performance and she sounded every inch a slum-born English prostitute working for coins. “I’m just finished for the night.”

He moved towards her: big and getting bigger. Sure-footed. In no hurry. The girl backed away, worn heels scraping the dirt. Cars passed on the main road.

“Okay, wait.” She glanced over her shoulder and calculated twenty steps to the safety of traffic and people, maybe twenty-two. “Wait. Let’s talk. We can work something out. What is it you want?”

“Everything,” he said.

On another night and with another client she might have joked, “All right. But it will cost you.”

Not this time. She turned and sprinted for the alley exit. Images of a roadside trench and the cold weight of the earth covering her naked body one shovel-load at a time flashed through her mind. Every drop of street cunning accumulated over the hard years told her that the big man would take her blood and her bones. But he would pay nothing for what he took.

Seventeen, sixteen, steps more to the main road. In truth, she lost count. It didn’t matter. The traffic was louder, the headlights brighter. She risked a look over her shoulder. The man sauntered the dirt lane with his hands thrust deep into his pockets. He couldn’t catch her at that pace. She was almost safe. Home now, quickly. Turn the handle, slip inside and lock the door.

She turned back and slammed hard into a wiry body. The impact knocked her off balance and breath rushed from her lungs. Her shoulder smacked the ground and dirt filled her mouth. She looked up, dazed. A second man crouched down and cupped a hand over her mouth. His palms smelled of raw sugar; such a sweet scent amid the stench of urine and kaffir weed in the laneway. Then realisation came quickly. There were two men in the alley and together, they’d netted her like a bird.

The one holding her down said, “Make sure she’s white. He’s strict about that.”

The man who’d blocked the exit to the vacant lot slotted a cigarette into the corner of his mouth. The flare of a match briefly lit his face, which was clean-cut and handsome. His black hair was combed back from his forehead. A dream client. He squatted and held the flame inches from her face. Heat licked her pockmarked cheeks.

“White and ugly,” he said and leaned closer. “Do you want to ride home with me tonight, sweetheart?”

The wiry one still blocked her mouth with his hand. She shook her head. Twin funnels of smoke snaked from the handsome man’s nostrils and he smiled.

A Xoum Publication.
    Malla Nunn

    Malla Nunn is the author of the Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper novels set in 1950s South Africa. A Beautiful Place to Die, Let the Dead Lie and Blessed Are the Dead [Silent Valley] have, between them, received two Edgar Award nominations, a RUSA Award for Best Mystery Novel and a Davitt Award for best crime novel by an Australian author. Blessed Are the Dead [Silent Valley], a 2013 Publishers’ Weekly Top Ten Summer Crime Read, was shortlisted for an Anthony Award and a Ned Kelly Award. Present Darkness, the fourth book in the series, was published to international acclaim in 2014. Malla lives and works in Sydney.

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