In the Clockwork City extract below, Gideon and the Dog are on the hunt for an Umthakathi (the bad version of a witch doctor) and the Dog is very grumpy because someone stole his sherry. Dangerous move…
The following extract is only for use by Hodder, and may not be reproduced without prior permission. Copyright © Paul Crilley.
‘My point . . .’ The dog gags and spits the severed finger onto the floor. He staggers slightly, then gives up and just leans against the bar. ‘What was my point again? Something about Christmas, wasn’t it? About the purity of Christmas music. Take “Christmas in Hollis”, for example, the one from Die Hard—’
‘You weren’t talking about Christmas music,’ I snap, tying a dirty dishcloth around the shebeen owner’s stump. ‘That was two hours ago. What you were saying, right before you decided to bite this man’s finger off, was that you don’t touch another man’s sherry.’
The dog straightens up. ‘Yes!’ he says happily. ‘That was it! You don’t touch another man’s sherry. Or a dog’s. It’s just not done, London. It’s frowned upon in polite society. And impolite society.’ The dog burps. ‘’S a fact.’
‘I’m not disagreeing,’ I say. ‘I just wonder if biting off his finger was the best way to resolve the situation.’
‘Only way, London,’ says the dog loftily. ‘Go in fast and go in hard. Bet he won’t think about touching someone else’s drink again. Am I right?’ The dog staggers over to where the guy is lying on the dirt floor of the shebeen and sticks his muzzle right in his face. ‘I said, am I right?’
The man stares at the dog in terror. He drags his eyes away and stares pleadingly at me. I pat his chest. ‘Don’t worry. It’s all a bad dream. You’ll wake up tomorrow with a bit of a hangover and a missing finger. A wild dog did it.’ I point at the bane of my life. ‘Not this one, though. And he certainly didn’t talk. Understand?’
The man frantically nods.
The dog wanders back to his bowl. ‘It’s his own fault. There’s a code involved when you drink in a pub. Everyone knows it. You don’t talk politics or religion, you don’t make a move on someone’s man or woman, and you do not – I repeat, do not – touch someone else’s drink.’
‘Like I said, I don’t disagree. But the whole idea here was to keep a low profile.’
‘Blame the sherry thief for that. I was content, London! Content to sit and drink my sherry. I’m trying to partake in the sentiments of the season. You know I love Christmas. Anyway, you should thank me. He’s more likely to talk now.’
I sigh and pull the guy to his feet. I drag him across the floor and lower him into a plastic lawn chair. The shebeen is empty now. Amazing how people have more important places to be when a dog that’s lapped up the equivalent of two bottles of sherry suddenly goes mad and starts biting off body parts.
I pull up another plastic chair and set it down in front of the shebeen owner. ‘So . . . now we’ve got all that over with, where is he?’
The man pulls his horrified gaze away from the now-red bandage. ‘Whu . . . ?’
‘The Sangoma. Where is he?’
‘I . . . don’t know what you’re talking about.’ His eyes swivel down to his hand. Tears spring to his eyes. ‘My finger. It was a good finger. The ladies liked what I did with it.’ He looks at me sadly. ‘It was very long you see. I—’
‘Too much information there, pal,’ I say quickly, cutting him off. ‘Now come on. We traced the phone call to this place. We know you called in the tip-off. Just tell us about the Sangoma and we’ll be on our way.’
The guy nervously licks his lips. ‘He . . . he’s not a Sangoma. He’s . . . Umthakathi.’
Umthakathi. The bad version of a witch doctor. Palpatine compared to Yoda. I feel a flutter of excitement. Of hope. Maybe I’m on the right track after all. Five young girls have gone missing from the area. Only, it’s not just here. There’s actually been a surge in missing kids lately, something I discovered while searching for leads on my daughter, Cally. We’re thinking child trafficking, but with a supernatural twist. We have two operatives, Lerato Sekibo, and Ayanda Odili, over in London right now. They’re following up another lead while I came to Cape Town to check things out down south.
That’s how desperate I am for a lead. I came to Cape Town. Voluntarily.
‘Why do you think he’s involved?’ I ask.
‘We’ve all heard. Sounds from his hut. And . . . lights. The shadows move. Even when they shouldn’t. People say . . .’ He looks around nervously. ‘People say they’ve heard girls crying.’
‘West. Over . . . over the hill. There’s a forest.’
‘Right.’ I nod at his hand. ‘I’d get that seen to. You’re losing a lot of blood. Dog. Come on.’
‘Don’t talk to me like I’m your pet,’ he snarls.
I have to fight down a sudden surge of anger at his tone. It takes a lot of effort. It’s been getting harder and harder lately to control my temper. To stop the anger cresting and breaking, spilling out into those around me.
I exit the tavern, staggering to a stop as the stifling December heat pummels me. I take a few steadying breaths, forcing myself to calm down, then shield my eyes and study my surroundings.
The setting sun sets fire to the township. Roofs made from corrugated metal catch the glare and magnify it, harsh orange light blinding me as I cast my eyes across the multi-coloured huts. There are thousands of them, made from scrap metal and wood. They’re painted all the colours of the rainbow, some even made from salvaged advertising signs, cellular phone and washing powder billboards that have been hacked up and repurposed.
Kids run along the dirt tracks that dissect the settlement, laughing and shouting, skinny dogs barking frantically and chasing after them. Old pickup trucks and minibus taxis speed along the dirt roads, narrowly avoiding running people over.
My gaze lifts higher, to the western end of the valley. The slope is already cloaked in shadow. On the other side of the rise is the forest where our target apparently lives.
I set off down the hill, moving deeper into the township.
-London. Hold up.-
The dog’s speaking mind to mind. Which means he’s probably realised he went too far. You know, what with biting a man’s finger off and everything. I pause and wait for him.
-I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time with this,- he complains as he catches up.
Because someone is kidnapping young girls. Which means it could be a lead on whoever kidnapped Cally. That name.
That elusive fucking name I had to give up to Mother Durban in order to stop Lilith infecting the world with God’s sins.
Over the past month I’ve searched through every Delphic Division record and file, and this is the first remotely plausible lead I’ve found. I personally doubt it is the Umthakathi.
They’re too . . . human for this. But Umthakathi sometimes have help from the other side.
Everything is hazy and golden as we hurry along the dirt road. I can hear laughter, voices raised in conversation.
Winking Christmas tree lights shine through windows.
Only a week to go ’til Christmas. Can’t come soon enough if you ask me. The dog gets incredibly annoying during the season. Not sure if it’s because he thinks it’s more acceptable to drink his sherry or what, but it’s his favourite time of year. He’s like a little kid. I have to buy him presents and everything.
-You realise it’s probably just a tokoloshe.-
‘It’s not a goddamn tokoloshe,’ I snap. ‘It’s never a tokoloshe. Ever. I doubt tokoloshe actually exist. I’ve never seen one. Have you?’
-There was that one time. In KwaMashu township.-
‘That wasn’t a tokoloshe.’ I step over thick, twisted electrical cables snaking across the ground. The cables connect to homemade junction boxes held together with duct tape and covered over with plastic carrier bags to protect them from the rain. Illegal electricity powers the entire settlement. ‘That was a pervert dressed up in a costume trying to see women in their bras and panties.’
-Whatever. I still think it’s a tokoloshe.-
‘It’s not a tokoloshe,’ I growl.
-Fine. Have it your way. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when a little hairy monster comes at you, swinging his four-foot dick as a weapon.-
We walk on in silence for another minute.
-Hey – what we watching when we get home? Lethal Weapon?-
I groan. The dog’s current fixation is eighties action movies and Christmas carols. His favourite songs right now are ‘Let it Snow’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, and the aforementioned ‘Christmas in Hollis’. He plays those three songs on repeat. In the car. At home. Everywhere.
On the plus side, I did get some blackmail material out of it.
The dog got pissed on sherry and started dancing around the apartment on his hind legs. Funniest goddamn thing I’d seen in ages, I’m telling you. I recorded him on my phone and played it back to him the next day. He threatened to rip out my throat if I showed it to anyone. He’s been trying to get rid of the evidence ever since.
So that’s what I’m dealing with in my life right now. Battling irrational bouts of rage, a permanently drunk spirit guide, eighties movies, and Christmas songs. Not necessarily in that order. Oh, and if the eighties movies happen to have a Christmas theme? All the better. I’m looking at you, Shane Black.
‘Lethal Weapon is fine.’
-Are you going to wear your hat?-
He made me buy matching Christmas hats for us. They light up.
‘That all depends on how much you annoy me.’
We’re nearly at the far end of the settlement. The road is more pitted here. Rain from earlier in the afternoon has collected in potholes, rising from the ground as wispy steam.
The humidity is made worse by the residents taking advantage of the last bit of sun to put out their washing, multi-coloured rainbows that hang between shacks oozing dampness into the air.
We follow the track leading up the slope, arriving at the outer boundary of the forest. Brown pine needles blanket the floor, a carpet of mulch still soaking wet from the rain.
The sun is almost gone by now, lowering beams slanting past the branches, limning the tree trunks in gold. A small shiver courses through me. Why is it so quiet here? I look around. No birds. No animals. Nothing.
I check over my shoulder, just to make sure the township is still there. It is, bathed in golden light. But all the sound is cut off.
‘Not sure I like this,’ mutters the dog. ‘It’s seriously harshing my festive sherry vibe.’
We set off, making our way through the trees as night falls around us. It seems to happen a lot faster than usual. Or maybe we’re walking for longer than I realise.
I’m about to suggest we turn back when the dog suddenly stiffens.
-Life signs ahead.-
We move slowly forward, inching past the trees, trying not to rustle the grass.
-How far?- I ask.
The dog doesn’t say anything.
-Dog? How far?-
-Right there . . . Look.-
It takes me a moment to see them.
They’re standing around a tree, holding hands. Their heads hang down, chins resting against their chests.
I look down at the dog. He stares at the girls for a moment, then looks up at me.
-So . . . this isn’t at all creepy,- he says.
-Tell me about it.-
We look back at the girls.
-Are they . . . are they swaying?- I ask.
-Yes. Almost imperceptibly.-
-Right. Off you go then.-
-You’re a funny guy, London. I ever tell you that?-
-Come on! You’re the magical spirit guide here. You’re a . . . a biological transformer! What are you scared of?-
-London, let me tell you something. I’ve fought in a war between shadow stealers and the forgotten children of Barnabus Island. I’ve seen a battle fought in stormy skies between angels and demons, blood raining down on me. I’ve watched the inspiration for Peter Pan murder hundreds of children when they grew too old to be in his gang. I’ve eaten an apple pie baked from the actual motherfucking apple discarded by Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’ve— –
The dog stops talking.
-Is any of that true?-
-All of it. Well . . . except for the last one. There was no apple pie. My point is I’ve seen some serious shit, and that . . . that right there . . . freaks me the hell out.-
We wait, but the girls don’t seem inclined to do anything except sway around the tree.
There are only four of them. The reports said there were five missing girls. Where’s the other one?
I feel a prickling up the back of my neck and look quickly over my shoulder. Nothing.
Except the mist, of course. There’s plenty of that, because of course there is. Why not make it even creepier? I wipe the sweat from my eyes. Why the hell does it have to be so damn humid?
‘Hello?’ I call out to the girls.
No response. Which is even more worrying. If that had been me standing out in the middle of nowhere and someone shouted hello, I’d have jumped ten feet into the air.
I move slowly forward. ‘Hey.’
Again, no response. Lightning flickers in the distance, followed a moment later by a low rumble of thunder.
I’m a few feet away now. I hesitate, glance back over my shoulder. I can’t see the dog anymore.
-Keep going,- he says encouragingly. -I’m right behind you.-
Yeah. Twenty feet behind me.
I reach out and gently touch the girl closest to me.
As soon as my fingers touch her skin, all four girls’ heads snap up to look at me.
I stagger back, my heart thumping furiously. They don’t do anything else. Just stand and stare.
I study the girls. Their skin is pale, the shadows around their eyes dark and heavy.
‘Are you here to help us?’ says one of them. Her voice is low and monotone. I think they must have been drugged.
‘Uh . . . yeah.’ I look nervously around. The woods feel like they’re closing in on me. Branches sway in the warm wind, the whispering leaves a gentle susurration in the background.
I hold out my hand. ‘Come on. Let’s get you back to your families.’
One of the girls reaches out and takes my hand. She must be about twelve years old, the others slightly older. Her skin is cold and dry. I gently lead her away from the tree and the other girls follow after, still holding onto each other.
As I reach the dog another flash of lightning bursts above us, monochrome shadows leaping out from the trees. I freeze, peering into the darkness.
The dog appears by my side. -What?-
-I . . . thought I saw something.-
The dog pads forward, sniffing the ground.
-There’s a smell. But I’m not sure what it is.-
-Orisha or human?-
-It . . . smells like an animal.-
We wait a few moments longer, peering into the shadows.
-An owl?- says the dog.
We start moving again. We make our way back through the trees, the girls following close behind. It takes us almost an hour but we finally crest a rise and see the lights of the township spread out below us. I’ve never been so happy to see so many cheap Christmas lights flickering on and off.
A bolt of lightning arcs out of the sky and grounds itself right behind the settlement.
The township plunges into darkness.
Well . . . shit.
I blink, waiting for my eyes to adjust. The weight of the night snaps in around us, thick and velvety. Hot and heavy. It wraps around me, suffocating. The writhing mist is the only movement, slow and sinuous.
I look behind me. The girls are still there, silent and waiting. They’re really freaking me out. They look unharmed, but they’ve definitely been given something. They’re acting too spaced out.
I turn back to the township. Tiny flickers of light appear. At first I think it’s fireflies, but then I realise it’s candles being lit in the shacks.
-Not to freak you out or anything, but I think we’re being watched.-
The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. -Where?-
I shift my head slightly. I scan the darkness between the trees, but can’t see anything.
-In the branches.-
I look up.
Then I see it. Some kind of dwarf-like creature is staring down at us from the tree.
I reach slowly for my gun. Carefully take it out. I wince as I rack the slide, the metallic sound piercing through the night.
I raise my arm to shoot, but the creature hisses and leaps to the next tree before I even manage to pull the trigger. It pauses, looks back at me for a full second, black eyes glinting, then it whirls and leaps through the branches, heading deeper into the woods.
-Is that . . . is that a fucking tokoloshe?- demands the dog, delight dripping from every word.
-Watch the girls.-
-It is, isn’t it? It’s a tokoloshe!-
I run after the creature.
-London! It’s a tokoloshe! I was right! London . . . ! London . . . ! LONDON!-
-WHAT? Shut up! Jesus Christ, dog, just watch them!-
-Fine, but I was right! Suck it, skinbag!-
I can see the creature ahead of me, bounding between the trees. I hate admitting when the dog is right, because it just encourages him, but it actually looks like it might be an honest-to-god tokoloshe.
The wind picks up as I chase after the creature, tree branches flailing against the sky. The storm is coming in fast.
After a mile or so, the creature drops from the trees and veers off to the left, leaving the woods behind. I struggle to follow, my breath coming in wheezing gasps.
I stagger to a halt to catch my breath. I straighten up just as more lightning flickers behind the clouds. The brief flash of white reveals the tokoloshe, waiting patiently for me on top of a hill.
The bastard’s waiting for me to catch up.
I set off again, this time at a slower pace. The tokoloshe vanishes over the hill, but when I reach the top I see it waiting at the bottom of the slope.
We carry on like this for another mile or so. Then, as I climb to the crest of another hill and start down the other side, I realise two things. One, the tokoloshe has disappeared, and two, there’s a small hut not twenty feet from me, partially hidden by trees and bushes.
The door to the hut opens. Orange light and thick smoke drift out, followed by a small man wearing dirty trousers smoking a home-made cigarette. I sniff the air, noting the unmistakably sweet smell of marijuana.
The man squints at me. I stare back, noting the animal skulls hanging around the eaves, the different kinds of herbs growing in the garden. This is the Umthakathi – the witch doctor. Nobody else would live out here alone.
He smiles at me and waves. And then something heavy lands on my back and forces me to the grass.
My cheek is pushed hard into the ground. I struggle but the hand pushes my head deeper into the earth, claws pressing into my head. I’m trapped. I’m forced to watch as the Umthakathi ambles towards me. His bloodshot eyes regard me with sleepy interest. He kneels down and lowers his head so that he is looking directly into my eyes. Then he sniffs. Like an animal he inhales my scent, moving all over my body, down over my back, along my legs, then back up again. I try to wriggle free, but the clawed hand holding my head tenses in warning.
The Umthakathi’s face appears in front of me again. He seems pleased with something. Dirty yellow teeth flash in another smile.
-Dog? Could use your help right about now.-
No answer. Makes sense. I must be way out of range.
The Umthakathi waves a hand in front of my nose, rubbing his fingers together as he crushes something into powder. The smell of vinegar wafts into my nostrils.
I try to speak, but my mouth doesn’t work. Lethargy overwhelms me. All I want is sleep.
And then the vinegary smell lodges in the back of my throat and I find it difficult to breathe.
I wake up to find myself tied to a musty bed. I look around in confusion. The room is wreathed in marijuana smoke. I can taste it in my mouth, smell it everywhere about my person. How long have I been breathing it? A long time, I suspect. My head is spinning. Everything feels surreal.
The Umthakathi dances around the little hut. He’s naked, and he seems to be dancing with a partner who isn’t there; one hand around an invisible waist, the other holding a non- existent hand. I try to move my head, but it feels too heavy. I settle on moving my eyes around the hut.
The tokoloshe sits on a shelf just beneath the roof. Its arms are moving rhythmically and I realise the creature is masturbating a penis almost as tall as it is. I find this quite comical, and almost burst out laughing until I see that it’s watching me with fierce concentration as it moves its hands up and down.
I test the ropes that tie my wrists. The left one is loose, but not loose enough that I can pull my thumb out.
‘Hey,’ I call out. ‘Hey, old-timer.’
The Umthakathi stops dancing and turns to me, a frown of irritation on his face. He walks toward me, picking up a machete from the table as he comes.
‘You know I’m a cop, right?’ I pull at the rope, but it still doesn’t budge. ‘If you do anything to me, you’re finished. Understand?’
The Umthakathi stops next to the bed. He lowers the blade so it hovers inches from my eye. I can see its pitted edge, covered in rust. The blade moves, touching my nose. Then it slides down over my mouth to stop at my neck.
I swallow nervously, then the blade is removed.
‘I won’t be doing anything to you, my friend,’ says the old man. ‘I was told to keep you safe.’
It takes a moment for the words to sink in.
‘Told? The hell are you talking about?’
‘You will see soon enough. It is almost time.’
He places the machete back on the table and starts dancing again, humming under his breath. I wriggle my left wrist back and forth, pulling down hard on the rope. After a minute or so I’ve rubbed my skin raw and soaked the rope with blood. I grit my teeth and pull with all my strength. The pain is excruciating but the blood-slick rope finally slides past my thumb. I breathe a sigh of relief and keep my hand where it is. I need to judge my next move perfectly. I won’t have much time.
I wait until the Umthakathi turns his back as he dances with his invisible partner. Then I pull my hand free and frantically try to untie the knot that holds my right wrist to the bedpost. This one is tighter. I yank at the knot, bending my nails back as I try to find something to grip. I’m not getting it. Shit.
No, wait. I feel something give.
And then everything seems to happen at once. The tokoloshe sees what I’m doing and lets out a screeching wail that startles me so much I stop pulling at the knot and look up.
The Umthakathi grabs the machete again and runs at me, his teeth bared in a snarl. I yank hard at the knot. It loosens.
The Umthakathi reaches the bottom of the bed and grabs for my feet. In the background, the tokoloshe drops from its shelf.
The knot parts.
I roll to the side and throw myself to the floor. I land heavily, my ankles still tied to the bedposts. The Umthakathi crawls over the bottom of the bed, pulling himself up my legs. I twist around and grab the silver knife I keep tucked away in my belt. I throw it and it hits the old fucker in the shoulder. He gasps. I use the distraction to grab the machete and swing it into his neck. It hits with a meaty thud. He shrieks in pain, blood sluicing down across his chest.
The tokoloshe is coming for me. I yank the machete free and throw it end over end, hitting the creature in the chest.
The creature screeches in pain, stumbling back against the wall. Black blood pours down over its stomach. It reaches up with trembling claws and pulls out the blade, dropping it to the floor. Then, mewling in pain, it turns and staggers towards the door.
I pull myself back onto the bed and untie my legs. I grab my knife from the Umthakathi’s shoulder and turn toward the doorway.
I freeze. The tokoloshe is standing there, facing me. Its wound is leaking a steady flow of black liquid onto the dirt. Its breath comes in ragged gasps.
But it’s the creature’s eyes that hold my attention. They bore into me with such hurt and betrayal that I feel as though I’ve stabbed a kid.
It turns from me and heads outside, looking back and once again waiting for me to follow.
I run after the tokoloshe. The creature leads me back into the woods. I try to keep it in sight, but after about ten minutes I lose the trail.
Then I hear something crying. The tokoloshe? No, this sounds human. I strain my ears as the warm wind flicks the sound in and out of hearing. It’s a child.
The fifth missing girl.
I run through the trees, all thoughts of the tokoloshe driven from my mind. The crying grows louder. I burst through a clump of bushes and stumble to a stop. I stare in amazement.
The tokoloshe is lying on the ground, cradled in the lap of the girl. She’s hugging it and crying.
‘Hey!’ I yell, stumbling toward her. ‘Hey, get away from that thing! Don’t let it touch you.’
The girl looks up at me and shakes her head, looking puzzled through her tears. ‘Why? He helped me get away from the old man. He said he wanted to hurt me.’
I shake my head. ‘What? Who said that?’
‘The tokoloshe! He said he wouldn’t let the old man hurt me like the others. He hid me here.’
Fragments of stories and myth drift through my mind. The tokoloshe raping women, beating men to death with sticks.
Adults raising their beds on bricks so the creature couldn’t reach them in their sleep.
But there are other stories too. Not gruesome enough to make it into everyday fears: the tokoloshe making friends with children, playing with them in total innocence, protecting them like a faithful dog.
Then the little girl starts laughing.
I stare at her in confusion. Then she tightens her grip and rips the head of the tokoloshe from its body.
She tosses the head at me and grins, showing sharp, serrated teeth. ‘We’ve been waiting for you, Gideon Tau.’
I hear a noise behind me and whirl around.
The other four girls are standing there. They’re smiling, but something about their faces isn’t right. They reach up and poke their fingers into their eyeholes, tugging. Their skins fall away. The loose flesh drops to the ground and they step out of them like discarded towels.
I stare at them in horror. Their bodies are just nerves and exposed muscle. Yellow mucus drips from their joints and their eyes weep black, oily tears that coat their faces like running mascara.
Demons that wear the skins of children and hunt in the night.
Fuck me, but I really got this one wrong.