From “Southern Free”, the prequel about Federi’s teenage years…
The dark monster was already working on engulfing Shadow as he sat in the dank, stinky holding cell on a stone slab that went for a bed. He had his knees drawn up, resting his head on them, the floppy hat thankfully covering his face.
He was alone in that cage, and the other cages were empty. For one night, he thought, he would allow his mind a complete break. Think of anything, except his life, his pointless, empty, useless vagrant life.
He couldn’t have known that even here, in this magical free country, there was no justice. In his teenage naivety he had thought that was a trait of the Unicate. But instead of taking his report, like they should have, these police had locked him up and were treating him as though he were the criminal in the equation. Just because he’d cut down four muggers, hijackers, kidnappers, two of them in self-defence! And saved a harmless gadje mother and her little girl. Well, at least he couldn’t be upset about that part. Today his worthless life had actually achieved something good.
The dark entity that took over his inner space periodically was watching from its mean, evil corner. He hated that thing; he thought of it as a demon. It wasn’t; it was a part of himself, but an untethered, wild black animal that took no prisoners. It grew huge under his floppy hat, filled out the world until there was no more light…
And then he heard the bell. It chimed only once; a clear, otherworldly sound that seemed to come from somewhere within his chest. The sound was drifty and angelic as it resonated and eventually faded. Its frequencies sliced through him like a laser, cutting him to ribbons in a way no crooks or Unicate had ever managed.
He looked up to see if anyone else had heard it. But he was alone in the room, and it hadn’t come from anywhere in this world, he was sure of that. Now he knew: Something special had indeed happened today, only moments back. He had been right about today. That chime had lifted him out of his gloom, out of the current situation and away from his past. It had banned that demonic entity back into the darkest recesses of his soul.
He had no idea how it touched his life, but it was good enough to make him lean back against the wall and relax, and smile blissfully as he drifted off to sleep.
Voices and the sound of metal on metal rattled Shadow out of his sleep. He opened his eyes to “ag shame, he’s asleep!” and flashed the woman a smile. Not anymore, Lucy’s mother! What the heck was she doing here?
Police Chief Dlamini himself – the gypsy made a point of memorizing such names – unlocked the cell.
“It’s your lucky day, vigilante,” he said gruffly. “You can go home.”
Uncertainly, Shadow came to his feet.
“Yes, that’s right, you’re free,” encouraged the gadchey with a smile.
“Yah, you can go voertsek now,” added Dlamini with an evil grin. “But don’t kill more people, next time you’re in trouble, you hear?”
Shadow nodded acknowledgement, not meeting anyone’s eyes. If they knew!
“Sharp,” said the gadchey. “Thank you, Chief!”
“Sharp-sharp,” the police chief echoed with a thumbs-up as Shadow trudged past him, his eyes hidden beneath his floppy hat. He followed the woman out of the police station, into the street that was by now under a star-strewn sky. And that’s where he came to a halt, glanced at the glorious skies and stared searchingly at the woman.
“Why?” he asked. “Why free me?”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “You saved both Lucy and me today! I had to take her to the doctor first, we thought for a moment that she had a broken ankle, but it turns out it’s only sprained. She’s been asking where you are, and if you’re alright. When I called the police and found that they had you in their cells, I came right away.” She whistled through her teeth. “Young man, you have no idea whom you took on your horns there today! That was the Barberton Four. They are serial rapists, murderers, hijackers and robbers.”
“Were,” corrected Shadow. “I killed them.”
“That’s what the chief said!” exclaimed the woman. “How the heck did you manage that?” When he failed to answer, she added, “it took me quite a bit to pay the ransom.”
“The poliţia ransomed me?” asked Shadow, his jaw dropping.
“They ransomed the file,” laughed the woman. “I bought it from them. You have no record now.”
Shadow snapped his mouth shut.
“You’re coming with me,” determined the woman. “I’m Marge, by the way.” She stuck out a resolute hand. Shadow shook it reluctantly. “I run a guest house,” she rambled on. “Maroela Lodge. First you’re going to get a decent meal.” She peered critically at his rags. “And some clothes.”
Shadow trailed after her. He wasn’t turning down a free meal! As for the rags though… those were his rags! His Free Gypsy camouflage clothes. He wasn’t giving them up. At least not the coat. Never! It had been his father’s. And the hat – he needed that, it afforded him privacy for his thoughts. And not the boots either. He was proud of those – only stolen from an upmarket Spanish mountaineering shop a month before he stowed away on the boat that had taken him to Southern Free. He guessed the jeans and t-shirt could be overhauled, but he didn’t need the charity of this woman, he knew how to pick shops all by himself!
It took him overcoming another set of reservations when she told him to climb into the high-set “bakkie”, a small pickup truck. He didn’t like motor vehicles. It made him feel out of control.
“You’re bleeding!” she exclaimed as she took the driver’s seat. “Good grief, look at that leg of yours! Is that a stab wound?”
Shadow shrugged as Marge tried to get a closer view, and pulled his coat over the messed-up jeans. Yes, blood had streamed in buckets down those pants, they needed a good wash. Nothing some water and sand wouldn’t sort in a jiff. One of the thugs’ blades had bitten into the muscle there. But not critically. It would take a few weeks to heal, then it would be good as new.
“Straight to the clinic,” she determined.
Shadow laughed softly. “Last I looked, this place’s doctors close at five,” he commented with his soft Romanian lilt.
“Ha,” replied Marge haughtily and pulled out a cell-phone, activating it. Shadow could hear the thing connect. It was an old model; in Southern Free, innovations were state-of-the-Ark.
“Dr Swarts?” she greeted. “Can you open the rooms for an emergency please?”
“One of the kids?” came the alarmed voice on the other side. “Is it Lucy?”
“No,” she said, “the kid who saved me and Lucy. He brought down the Barberton Four. I found him.”
A stunned silence on the other end, then, “What? – I’m opening up, Marge, bring him in.”
She grinned at Shadow as she closed the phone. “Helps to have favours to call in. The other day I let him use the lodge for his wedding for free, in exchange for medical treatments.”
Shadow gaped at her. He liked this country!
A little while later Shadow sat on a weird, prehistoric high hospital bed, having his leg doused in surgical spirits (that burnt like hell) and examined. The doctor was a young man, probably in his twenties, with black hair and intelligent little spectacles.
“Is it bad?” asked Marge, all concerned mother-hen.
“Just another stab wound,” said Dr Swarts. “It bled itself pretty clean, it should heal nicely. I’ll stitch it. But I want to look at that arm too.” He straightened out and lifted Shadow’s hat out of the way and examined the cut on the forehead. “Maybe this will need some stitches too.”
Shadow’s hand came up reflexively, warding the doctor off.
“You don’t want your face stitched?” Dr Swarts smiled. “I think an elastoplast will do it too. So you attacked some thugs?”
The good doctor learned a few things about Shadow that evening. Firstly, the young gypsy was a stoic. Secondly, he was evasive. Neither Dr Swarts nor Marge could get out of him how he’d managed to finish off the other two thugs, after Marge had explained that he’d killed the one who had attacked her, with a single throw of a rock to his head, and that Lucy had seen him cut down the second one with his knife, fast and efficiently.
“She was supposed to run!” growled Shadow. “She wasn’t supposed to see that!”
Marge studied him critically. “You’re her hero now, you know!”
Shadow snorted, then read the unspoken question in her eyes.
“Sure, sure, I’m from a rough background,” he said impatiently, his accent thick and uncensored. “Tzigan, right? Came from Europe. There’s bad stuff there. Tzigany are always running for their lives. Well, this Tzigan got tired of running, and turned around and fought back. You corner a rat, you get bitten. Simple.”
“Can’t believe the police didn’t at least call someone to bandage him up,” said Dr Swarts with an edge of anger.
“Yah well,” was Marge’s eye-rolling response. And she turned to Shadow. “Well, this Tzigan is going to have a good meal tonight and sleep in a decent bed, warm and snug. You’re staying with us at the lodge until that leg is healed.”
Shadow blinked at her with round eyes. He got a choice in this, nu? … Nu, apparently.
“Marge,” commented Shadow as he got back into the pickup truck with a slightly stiffer leg and arm than he’d started out with, “you’re an endangered species.”
“Why?” She took the wheel, and the bakkie crunched onto the road and started wending its way between the hills surrounding Sabie.
“You and your little girl! You trust strangers far too easily! You’ve seen me kill two people. What makes you think your household is safe if you take me in? You know nothing about me!”
Marge laughed lightly. “You’re not about to hurt us,” she said with confidence. “Now stop already with the self-importance. Staying with us and having a home for a while is worth a lot more to you than clearing us out and selling our stuff.”
Shadow shut his mouth and swallowed a bubble. Self-importance! What did she know? She was right, he realized with embarrassment. He was pretty full of himself. Time to take his eyes off himself and find a worthy cause.
The truck turned off the road and onto a bumpy dirt road. Shadow watched the trees close like a roof over them as they followed the track down towards the lights of a house. Marge stopped the pickup under a zinc roof and cut the engine.
“Oh,” she said. “One more thing.” She handed him something in a cloth. Shadow unravelled it. A broad smile spread over his face. She had retrieved Sharktooth for him!