De Villiers Prokureurs—Attorneys was uncomfortably close to the Carnarvon Police station.
Then again, Marsha reminded herself, everything in Carnarvon was uncomfortably close to that building and the man she had developed an aversion to.
Before leaving, JJ had given her some pointers and made a call to someone he called Pieter, the attorney who would assist her. He’d spoken on the phone in front of Marsha but he might as well not have, as the entire conversation had been in Afrikaans.
The building was drab; the carpet inside grey utility tiles of the nonexistent-pile variety. The waiting room was depressing; the cheap plant in it fake, the magazines on the high-gloss lacquered pine coffee table incomprehensibly in Afrikaans; by the look of their well thumbed pages, they were far out of date and concerned with farming and gossip.
The secretary who greeted Marsha did so in Afrikaans also.
“I’m so sorry,” Marsha apologized. “I can’t unfortunately understand.”
“Oooh, sorry,” said the tubby lady with hair styled in another era, “You’re that American from England. I’m Beatrice. Meneer de Villiers… he-is called in and says he is almost here.”
She made up for bad dress sense, turgid looks and an unfortunate stumbling accent laced with odd sentence structure; and words directly translated from her native Afrikaans; with an engaging smile and vast welcome. “Can I get you some tea or koffie?”
“That would be very nice, yes—uhhmm coffee please.”
The lady rambled a litany of questions and observations from behind the kitchenette screen as spoons clinked cups and what sounded like tin too.
“You do take sugar?” Beatrice asked as she handed over a steaming mug, advising that there were already three in and it was stirred.
Marsha looked into the swirling muck just placed in her hand and wished she’d asked for water—which would be harder to ruin. But Beatrice was telling her all about the hairdresser in town that was introducing a fantastic new system for affixing fingernail extensions; or that’s what Marsha thought she could glean from the broken English and even more confused specifics that Beatrice had only just herself heard about this morning from a Mrs. Vermeulen.
Marsha’s reservations for pursuing Dara’s issue through this law firm were peaking. On the other hand, JJ had warned that the only other attorney in the town would be hostile to her, “He’s an elder in the church,” he’d mentioned and by now she realized that no more need be said.
Beatrice was just getting going on some problems she was having with a tooth and the difficulties of getting it resolved in such a backwater, when Marsha saw a latest model SUV pull up outside and park alongside her own. By now she’d expected quite-what sort of vehicle she did not know.
The man who alighted was stylishly dressed, stylish at least for what she’d also thought might appear—by this stage of her acquaintance with Beatrice, a blue Safari suit with high socks carrying a comb for a crew-cut hairstyle and steel rimmed glasses had seemed most probable and likely.
He came in through the door with a smile and apology for being late. “I’m Pieter… Please come on through, Mrs. Martin—Beatrice, can you organize coffee please—would you like?” He looked askance at Marsha.
She’d only managed a single sip of the over-sweetened dishwater and had bravely managed to swallow it only because Beatrice had kept a close eye on her, so she declined Pieter’s offer, “Please call me Marsha,” she added.
“Thank you,” he said to Marsha. He’d seen the liquid misery in her hand and rounded on Beatrice, “Agghh nee, Beatrice! You gave her that rubbish you drink.” He took the mug from Marsha’s hand and passed it to Beatrice. “And you put three spoons of sugar in it I’m sure?”
Beatrice hung her head mournfully and admitted with tiny nods that he was right.
“I can’t seem to train her,” he said to Marsha in front of her. “She’s so good with filing and on the phone but she thinks everybody else’s taste buds are as bad as hers.”
Marsha found herself intrigued with this strange little office, its internal dramas and over-zealous idiosyncratic receptionist.
“Now you make us some proper coffee—the one I bring from Cape Town. And use the new machine, not that old drip filter!” Pieter was gentle but firm. His tone sounded weary. Evidently this was a long-enduring skirmish.
“Is your husband joining us?”
“I’m afraid not. He’s supposed to be leaving soon and we felt that it’s best if I take it from start to finish. He’s getting as much time in with Dara as he can.”
Pieter ushered Marsha into his office and shut the door behind him.
Inside, it was much more lavish. A new laptop sat on the desk and a row of bound legal books filled the walls. The carpet was plush and the Herman Miller office chairs straight out of any leading I.T. company. The whole experience of the starkly differentiated division between the two rooms was bewildering.
Pieter saw her confusion and began to explain.
His expression said, “I know what you must be thinking, but there is a good explanation.”
“This little town is changing fast—it’s a work in progress… I took over the practice from my father—the reception is still as it was… if you change things too fast you scare away the old-timers; I just couldn’t look at it in here all day long.”
“I was wondering…” Marsha agreed.
“And Beatrice came with the deal—she’s dyed in the wool, and it’s a slow process to change her. I’m sorry about the instant coffee—it’s more chicory than anything—it seemed delicious in our past too… tastes in all things are slow to change, hey?” He grimaced and she liked him.
“I understand. A small town like this—the people don’t like change.”
“The older people hate it, but the younger generation are all for it. I was a year behind JJ and also moved to Cape Town; he went abroad and married a foreigner. I wasn’t coming back till my wife fell pregnant. She’s from around here… and, you know…”
“I’m sure. It’s a lovely lifestyle if you’ve got roots.”
“It is. But it is also quite challenging once you’re exposed to a different perspective.”
“Which brings me to my son.”
“Yes, how is he doing?”
“Not quite well enough to travel but he’s mobile again. He’s in a lot of pain.”
“It’s been a rough time. Out of our comfort zone, so much to take in and then… well…. this.”
Beatrice came in and the cappuccinos she brought smelled and looked perfect.
“It’s one of those capsule machines—automated,” Pieter had seen Marsha’s relief. “Now isn’t that easier and nicer, Beatrice?”
“I prefer my Koffiehuis Meneer,” and she went out muttering about the outrageous cost of the cartridges.
“I’m hellish sorry about the welcome our little town’s given you and your boy.”
“Please—I’m not blaming the town, that would be irrational. But I do think there’s a real problem here. I think there are a few people here that are dangerously fanatical. Dara has paid a price he didn’t deserve—nobody can ‘un-pay’ it.” She paused and shook her head, pragmatism wrestling bodily with emotion. “It really is outrageous… it’s only my idealism to be sensible that has kept me from packing up and heading for home.”
“I appreciate and thank you that you didn’t,” Pieter agreed. “Let’s get to it and get you justice.”
“I want to be honest,” Marsha replied. “I don’t think we’ll come close to seeing justice. On the other hand, I’m not going to let the incident just slide. I don’t want Dara to see me quit.”
“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much justice we can get. How does Dara feel about taking this on?”
“He’s very upset and that’s upsetting to me. He’s gone through a lot for a sensitive boy. He shrugged off the attack at the school amazingly well; I was very proud of that… He turned that proverbial cheek.” She fidgeted with her keys.
“If I may…” Pieter interjected. “It’s interesting… your use of the term… other cheek.”
“Oh… you mean it’s biblical roots?”
“Sure, yes… ‘Atheists in our town’…,” his fingers framed the words in the air, “…you’re all the buzz.”
Marsha smiled, appreciating Pieter’s subtlety in pointing out how an opposing attorney might aim to mangle anything she said; “I don’t think there’s a monopoly on the sentiment,” she suggested. “To be a pacifist is the cornerstone of humanism. I think that welding pacifism to a theology is simply a habit for those who haven’t thought it through.”
“Interesting. You’re right… and you’re quick,” Pieter smiled. “I prefer clients who understand why they’re saying something… plenty don’t. I distracted you, you were saying about Dara?”
“Well, after this attack, with his injuries so severe the doctor kept him heavily sedated for the first few days. Dara’s also suffered quite a bit of post-trauma… nightmares. My husband’s very British. He’s been an absolute pillar, helping us all stay objective. And, I must say… JJ’s sister… she’s been visiting regularly, and… oh, please keep that to yourself it’s apparently a… a bit of an issue with the father.”
“I know,” Pieter declared, “JJ told me. Lots of drama on the home front.”
“Yes. Well, she’s been fantastic. Poor thing, she can’t come over in the open… she has to keep the visits very covert. I really don’t want to know what will happen when the father gets wind of it—and I’m sure he will, he seems to know everything around here.”
“I’ve known the family a long time. Oom Andre is something else. He’s a nice man, just some very strange idiosyncrasies. Very bitter about the new political dispensation, doesn’t like outsiders or change.”
“Scares the hell out of me.” She watched Pieter carefully as she went on; “What scares me more, and I’m sure JJ has spoken to you about it, is that he seems to be implicated in this whole affair—caused Dara to divert onto the road past the Vermaak farm… I hope I pronounced it right?”
“Pronounced well enough.” Pieter shifted uneasily in his seat, he picked up his pen and fidgeted with it. “From what I’ve heard… yes, uhmm… it doesn’t look good for that involvement. But if we start making a noise about it it’s going to… well, you know…”
“Be awkward?” Marsha suggested, raising an eyebrow.
“Awkward would be a good word,” Pieter agreed. “Small town… he’s got a long family history… and police anywhere in the world…” his voice petered out hopelessly, “…hard to challenge. But you’re my client and if you want to go there I’ll go there. But it will be, yes… awkward.”
“Well. I’m not sure how we can leave out something that to me seems to be a cornerstone… material, but let’s see where we can go. I’m not being a mum now. Don’t get me wrong, I could easily become unhinged when I let my emotions run and they want to run right now, that won’t serve us. I’m being a rational scientist if you will… keeping my objective hat on. I’m trying to deal with the facts as they lie within the context we find them.”
“I’m grateful for that. As I say, I’ll take your case and run with it and take you wherever you want me to take you but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out the pitfalls too.”
“Fair enough… and… sorry, Dara… we were talking about his state of mind. He’s going through a lot of sentiments; to get out of here back to England, next thing he gets angry and wants justice. We’re playing everything by ear.”
“Granted. Well… let’s dig in and see what we have. Start with the case against Dara. This morning I was over at the police station speaking to the Captain… He’s not remotely interested in it, didn’t even know Oom Andre was pursuing it.”
“Really?” Marsha was amazed, “That constable said the Captain was up in arms… wanted to make an example out of Dara!...?”
“He said there’s an open docket; there can be no question Dara was riding underage and without a license on a public road—a secondary one, but he also needed by implication to have traversed a National highway to have got there. He’s not denying he was in Loxton?”
Marsha nodded agreement.
“Good… the Loxton police and the owner of the coffee shop where he met JJ have confirmed someone of his description in their town earlier that day.”
“Now, this is interesting,” Marsha cut in. “I’d like very much to know when and how the Loxton police made the connection to the Carnarvon police—especially if the Captain is disinterested.”
“I think I see where you’re going but I doubt anything like that is actually logged.”
“Are there no recordings of radio traffic?”
“Indeed, but I don’t think we have a prayer of getting them released to us. If this were a murder case—maybe.”
“So you have to actually be murdered, an attempt is not enough?”
“It’s an imperfect system,” Pieter agreed.
“It’s a frustrating one.”
“Sadly, I think they all are, the world over. Yes… again, small town… things are going to work, well… differently.”
“You’re preparing me for something.”
“I am, yes, it’s something we have to deal with, circumstances we have to face without emotion.”
“I’m a realist,” Marsha assured him. “Much as I’m pissed off and perhaps even frightened, I don’t want a vendetta, because that’s what I think you’re getting at. I simply want resolution and to bring this situation out into the open so that we can put an end to it.”
“That all my clients were so rational.” Pieter opened his palms in praise to heaven. “We’re going to get a resolution.”
“You were saying, about the police’s case?”
“Yes. I’ll massage that... It’ll go away.”
“So, nothing to be concerned about?”
“Not in the scheme of things. No… And from your side we are alleging that there are two incidents concerning the same individual… the attacker… that are somehow connected? I just want to spell it out so we’re on the same page.”
Marsha explained in detail all that she knew, adding something unexpected, “Sonja, JJ’s sister told Dara she feels responsible.”
“Evidently, that boy… the perpetrator… he considered Sonja his girlfriend.”
“I pretty much knew that. Again, small town stuff—he’s the alpha lion, she’s the prettiest girl around. And the connection to Dara? Sonja only met Dara at the hospital, I thought?”
“Yes they only officially at the hospital, but she was there when he attacked Dara… it looks like a racist attack made worse by jealousy… the things he said and way he ambushed Dara… Neels—that’s his name?”
“Sonja says Neels was incensed by Dara’s introductory talk at the school. Neels wasn’t even in the class, but she said it was like wildfire through the school… like Dara had been set up by the teacher… by the preacher stoking xenophobia in the kids. They all knew exactly what Neels was going to do coming in from the fields, and when Sonja tried to intervene, he accused her of having a… a ‘thing for a darkie’.”
“Hmmm…” Pieter nodded encouragingly, knowingly.
“After the attack Sonja split up with Neels, and that sent him over the edge… set him to bragging around town what he was going to do to Dara. The school principal turned a deaf ear.”
Pieter let out an agonized sigh, “I can only say it fits a pattern. But courts don’t judge on patterns, they judge on facts, and so far we don’t have any.”
Marsha nodded, appreciating a truism the world over.
“What exactly did Neels say to your boy?” Pieter quizzed.
“It was in Afrikaans so it meant nothing to Dara, but Sonja wrote it down for you.”
Pieter read the note, “swart moffie duiwelaanbidder,” his eyebrows lifted. “That’s a hate crime, she’d have interpreted for you I'm sure—black homosexual devil worshipper. You prove he said that and he’s in deep water. If he was the other side of eighteen when he said it, he’d be even deeper.”
“We could scout around for witnesses. I wouldn’t want to put Sonja through it even though she’s willing, I think there are too many implications for her.”
“And for everyone,” he sighed, “…Honestly Marsha, it’s worth a try, but I think you’ll meet a wall of silence, nobody’ll speak out. If I’m wrong, this changes gears and it goes to the Equality Court, and that hits the press. Nobody round here will have that staying power to testify against a prominent family.”
“And the significance of that court? I can guess but I’d rather ask.”
“The Equality Courts were created by the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000, which was promulgated as a direct result of section 9 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”
Pieter stood up and ran his finger along the spines of the books on his shelves as he was talking.
“So it’s a proper Magistrate’s Court?” Marsha asked.
“Oh, no—it actually falls under the jurisdiction of the High Court, the Supreme Court—it’s a very serious matter.”
“A Supreme Court?!” Alarm was in Marsha’s voice.
“Don’t stress—under the Constitution, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where a layperson can use the machinery of State, at the State’s cost, to test the constitution in the High Court if they feel they have been violated.”
“This country is a real enigma,” Marsha remarked. “In some ways so locked into the past, in other ways… if only in theory, so progressive.”
“It’s not just theory, it’s very real. If you have the evidence, we can bring the matter and it will be expedited. There is very little case law in this regard so that the courts are hungry to test it, to animate the law and develop jurisprudence and precedent. First, we need the evidence and the witnesses.”
Pieter pulled down a volume from his shelf and now read from it, “The purpose of Equality Courts is to adjudicate matters specifically relating to infringements of the right to equality, unfair discrimination and hate speech, with a view toward eradicating the ever present post apartheid specter which essentially has divided the country along racial, gender and monetary related lines.
Equality Court proceedings are more akin to civil proceedings as opposed to criminal proceedings in that the onus of proof of a claim is on a balance of probabilities, and there are no prosecutors present at inquiries.”
“What this means is that we don’t need to prove ‘Without a shadow of doubt’—it does give us a powerful case, so long as we can find witnesses to testify.”
“And the… uhmm… what lawyers call the finding?”
“Yes—the remedy? What’s the outcome if a judgment is upheld?”
“Depending on the circumstances—a fine, community service. Prison is unlikely but not out of the question.”
“As you say, it’s speculative unless or until we get witnesses?”
“Precisely. What we ought to do is cast around. I know this boy’s reputation, people either love or hate him, he’s very abrasive. There’s a lot of talk around town that he’s a real bigot, it’s hearsay unless someone credible steps forward with a specific gripe and I don’t know what it will take to make that happen. Ask Sonja if others will come forward and meanwhile, we concentrate on a civil case.”
They discussed the type of evidence Pieter would need and Marsha came up with the best she could think of.
“Dara’s bike is in perfect condition after the incident, except for a small damage to the crash bar. It looks like it fell over at a virtual standstill but he has injuries that the doctors say would be consistent with a very serious high-speed fall.”
“That’s a lot closer to the kind of facts we need. That can form part of a deposition from the doctor and an expert in crash forensics.”
“There were no skid marks and I didn’t expect any because Dara’s clothing and the bike showed nothing like the injuries his body had taken. I took a ton of photos at the scene… The two farmers who helped out were brilliant. Jakob van Breda—he’s really my landlord, we stay on his farm,” and she read from her notebook, “Frik Hen-something-or-other?” Her pronunciation was poor.
“Frik Hendriks?” Pieter guessed.
“Yes—that’s him. Frik, he’s the one who found Dara the night of the accident. He was very helpful. Says he’s a hunter and he sure seems to have an eye for detail.”
“I think you’re in luck then because he’s the closest thing to a forensic specialist in this area. Not university trained but he owns a game farm and is a very well known hunter. You’re especially in luck because he hates the Vermaaks. They’ve had a feud for two generations already. They’ve got adjacent farms and have had countless trips to court and probably the doctor too from the dustups they’ve had. If he’s got something, we may have something.”
“So—finally… our first breakthrough,” Marsha rolled her eyes comically.
She had a sense of humor and Pieter really liked that in a lady.
His wife had lost her sense of humor when their income took the knock of leaving the city. She nagged incessantly and found fault in most everything he did these days; he consequently was finding almost every woman attractive... But Marsha didn’t need a man to have a difficult spouse in order to find her attractive—she just was.
“We took some pictures of the place and position Frik found Dara in.” She handed Pieter the prints from the day the two farmers had posed to reenact the discovery.
He looked them over.
“Frik seemed to have a pretty good eye for all kinds of things. He pointed out tire tracks behind a low thorn bush, I took several pictures of the proximities and the tracks on the ground.”
“They’re clear, they’re tire marks for sure, but it proves nothing.”
Then she handed Pieter another sheaf of prints, “These ones are of the helmet, different angles.”
He looked through them slowly, back and forth. The tire marks were clearly imprinted. “You still have the helmet?”
“Yes… in a bag, put away in my cupboard with strict instructions to the staff not to touch it.”
“To my naked eye those tracks are the same or bloody close to the same,” Pieter put the best of the helmet and the dirt tracks side-by-side. “I’m no forensic specialist, I don’t know how many variations there can be on tires but to me this is pretty hard evidence if my instincts are correct.” He laced his fingers behind his head and rode backward in his office chair, staring into the distance past Marsha.
“The helmet has stress fractures. From what I’ve learned that would take quite an amount of force.”
“Now that sounds interesting…” he kept staring, then stopped and sat upright and examined the prints. “Look… these aren’t official police photos and there are no official police measurements of the scene, so far as I’m aware.”
“Then how can they charge Dara?”
“Circumstantial. They’re not charging him with crashing they’re charging him with riding. The crash is inconsequential as far as they’re concerned. Honestly, it’s petty of the cops, it’s nothing; they’re just being difficult.”
Marsha nodded agreement.
“If that’s all you’ve got… the pics… it’s a hell of a long shot. I doubt you’ll get that boy on criminal charges—the burden of proof required is higher. You may get something though on a civil action.”
“What does that translate to? Precisely I mean. What does it translate to in practical terms.”
“Well—on a criminal case… on attempted murder, it’s very sketchy, I don’t think a local prosecutor will touch it. You can sue for damages, the civil evidence requirement is less.”
“Well I think a damages case is appropriate. There are some hard costs—medical…. insurance has picked up most but that’s not the point.”
“This isn’t America, we don’t have a jury or a history of big awards.”
“I’m… we’re not looking for an award, it’s not about money, it’s about right… about justice and about responsibility.”
“Then I think we’ve got a case. What I need you to do or I can do, is bring in a forensic expert on the tire tracks. It’s going to cost you out of pocket, and we can sue for costs.”