DYING TO LIVE

Part 1

Chapter 1

Detective Sergeant Segodi looked down at the dead Bushman and frowned. He didn’t have much time for the diminutive people of the Kalahari. Somehow they always caused trouble whether they meant to or not, and this was a case in point.

The Bushman was very old. That much was obvious. His skin was a web of wrinkles, and there wasn’t a smooth area even the size of a thebe coin on his face. The lips were cracked and parched. But the most striking thing was the short crinkly hair covering the wizened head. It was pure white. Segodi couldn’t remember ever seeing a Bushman with pure white hair before; it was a sign of age so advanced that few Bushmen, with their challenging lifestyle, ever attained it.

The detective cursed.

What was the man doing out here alone? he wondered. He should have been with his family group in nearby New Xade. Or, if he’d walked into the desert to die in peace, why had he chosen to do so in sight of the road into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve rather than somewhere private in the middle of nowhere?

Instead, a foreign tourist driving to the game reserve had spotted the body being checked out by a scavenger and reported it to the police station at New Xade, fifty kilometres up the road. Constable Ixau—who was the New Xade police force—had investigated and called the Criminal Investigation Department in Ghanzi. Which was why Segodi was sweltering in the Kalahari sun with a mask over his nose and mouth, instead of being in the relative comfort of his office.

Now there would be paperwork and aggravation, to say nothing of having to share the Land Rover with the corpse for a hundred and fifty kilometres before it was disposed of in the public cemetery.

The area around the body was scuffed and trampled, which could have been caused by the shocked tourists. When he scanned the surroundings, he spotted something important—there were two sets of footprints coming out of the desert and ending at the body. This had been no lonely leave-taking; someone had walked with the Bushman to this spot before he died.

‘What do you make of that?’ Segodi asked the constable.

Constable Ixau followed the sergeant’s eyes. ‘Someone was walking with him in the desert.’

Segodi frowned, wondering why he wasted his breath. Ixau was clearly more than half Bushman. Surely he knew something about tracking in the desert. The detective examined the footprints more carefully. The sand was the soft, grey powder of the Kalahari, and it was difficult to make out much about the tracks.

Ixau joined him. ‘They came from there,’ he said, pointing to the left.

Looking down the road, the sergeant saw a second set of tracks—again of two people—some distance away. He walked over to check and, indeed, these were heading into the desert away from the road.

‘Fetch me the camera,’ he ordered the constable. ‘And bring the gloves.’ He was starting to have a bad feeling.

When he’d photographed the body from various angles and taken multiple shots of the two sets of tracks—the one leading into desert and the other ending at the body—he put on the latex gloves and knelt next to the body. There were no obvious injuries. Without much difficulty, he lifted the right arm for a closer look. Apparently, the man had been dead for some time, and the rigor mortis was starting to recede. There were contusions on the wrist. Perhaps that was the result of how the body had fallen, he thought.

He checked the other hand, but it seemed fine. But there was something odd about the neck. The angle didn’t seem quite right. And there was a scratch and other abrasions on the side of the face.

Segodi sighed. There was more trouble here than just paperwork. Someone had walked out of the desert with the Bushman, perhaps there had been a fight, and now the Bushman was dead.

What had happened to the other person? he wondered. Only a Bushman could survive out here on foot in the middle of nowhere.

Segodi glanced at the road. There were tire marks at the side, but that was probably the tourists’ vehicle. Nevertheless, he took a number of pictures.

Segodi told the constable to be careful with the body when they lifted it onto the body bag. He was going to send it for an autopsy. That would have to be in Gaborone, seven hours away from Ghanzi by van.

The corpse was even lighter than they’d imagined, and they carried the body bag to the Land Rover without difficulty. Segodi told the constable to mark the area where the body had been with stones, while he noted the GPS coordinates. When that was done, Ixau drew the sergent’s attention back to the tracks. ‘I think these are the victim’s,’ he said, pointing at the ones on the right. ‘He was a small man. You can see they are not as deep as the others, and not as big.’

Segodi turned to the footprints again. He examined them closely and realized that the constable was right. He grunted agreement.

An idea struck him. Was it possible one of the tourists had followed the Bushman’s tracks? He’d need to check if he could contact them. It seemed unlikely, but that would explain the double tracks very neatly. He was of two minds whether to follow them. They might go a long way, and the corpse was already stinking up his vehicle.

‘Shouldn’t we see where they go?’ Ixau asked.

Segodi gave him an angry look. Now he had no choice.

‘Come on then,’ he replied. ‘We’ll start where they head into the desert.’

‘Wait a minute,’ Ixau said. ‘Someone was running along the road here.’ He pointed at scuff marks on the verge of the road.

To Segodi the marks could have been anything, but he was beginning to respect the Bushman’s observations. ‘How do you know he was running?’

‘The gaps between them are too long,’ Ixau replied.

‘The Bushman?’

Ixau shook his head. ‘The gaps between them are too long,’ he repeated.

Segodi frowned, puzzled. ‘Someone ran from there?’ he asked, pointing back to where the body had been. ‘Maybe after killing the Bushman?’

Ixau thought about it, then shook his head. ‘I think running towards the body.’

It made no sense to Segodi, and he shrugged it off. ‘Let’s follow the tracks.’

Moving parallel to the pair of footprints so as not to disturb them, they walked for about a kilometre through the desert. The tracks wandered to and fro, crossed themselves, and then headed off again, as though the walkers had been looking for something.

In some places, the ground was the calcrete limestone common in this part of the Kalahari, and the tracks disappeared altogether. When that happened, Ixau headed straight on, and soon the tracks reappeared. The two people had made no effort to hide the signs of their progress.

Eventually they came to a depression surrounded by small sand drifts and calcrete scree. Apparently, the men had spent some time here, and it seemed that they’d taken samples, because there were several small pits dug in the stony ground. Prospecting? Segodi wondered. Someone looking for the hidden gems of the Kalahari? He snorted. Not that old nonsense again. Or was it something else?

He squatted and felt around in one of the holes, still wearing the latex gloves, but found nothing except a few root fibres, sand, and calcrete pebbles. He let them run through his fingers and stood up.

‘You make anything of this?’ he asked the constable. Ixau shook his head.

After that, the tracks headed directly back towards the road without the detours and crossings that had marked their progress into the desert. After a short time the two policemen were back at the vehicle.

‘Okay, let’s head back,’ Segodi said, wiping the sweat pouring off his face. ‘As soon as we get to New Xade, radio Ghanzi and tell them to drive a van towards New Xade. I’ll meet them on the way. We need to get that body to Gaborone as soon as possible.’

 

Chapter 2

It was a slow Friday. Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was looking forward to the weekend with his family, especially as his mother would be joining them.

It’ll be a treat for the kids, he thought. In fact, for all of us.

He leant back in his chair and crossed his legs on his desk. He was feeling content—there were no serious cases awaiting his attention, and he’d caught up with the dreaded paperwork.

Then he heard the sound he didn’t want to hear: his telephone ringing. He grabbed it.

‘Assistant Superintendent Bengu,’ he said gruffly.

‘Kubu, it’s Ian. Have you got a moment?’

Kubu sat up. Ian MacGregor was the forensic pathologist for the Botswana Police and was very good at his job. He was also a friend and shared Kubu’s taste for interesting cases. Kubu would always have a moment for him.

‘Of course, Ian. What’s up?’

‘It’s very odd.’ Uncharacteristically, the pathologist hesitated. ‘It’s that Bushman they sent over from Ghanzi.’

Kubu sighed. He’d had his fill of cases involving the Bushmen. ‘It’s not my case, Ian. Ghanzi CID has the jurisdiction for that one.’

Ian hesitated again. ‘I know that. But this is very strange indeed. It’s hard to explain.’

Kubu relented. ‘Try.’

‘Well, when I did the autopsy, it’s true about his neck being broken, butÉ’ The pathologist trailed off. ‘I think you’d better come over and see for yourself.’

Kubu was intrigued. He’d known Ian for many years, more or less from when the pathologist had arrived in Gaborone from his native Scotland. He was many things, but certainly not indecisive. Kubu scanned his pleasantly clean desk. He had the time.

‘I’ll see you in half an hour,’ he said.

***

Kubu found Ian in his tiny office off the mortuary, sucking on his usual pipe full of unlit tobacco and contemplating a desert scene he’d painted himself. He’d pulled down his surgical mask and left it hanging around his neck.

After a perfunctory greeting, Kubu asked him what was so puzzling.

‘I’ll show you,’ Ian replied. ‘Get togged up.’ He pointed to a lab coat that had some hope of getting around Kubu’s bulk, handed him a mask, and passed him a box of latex gloves. He pulled on a pair himself, adjusted his mask, and led the way to the room where the autopsy had taken place. Kubu was glad that lunch was still a way off; he was not fond of dead bodies under the best of circumstances, and cut up ones that had been lying in the desert for a few days certainly weren’t the best of circumstances.

They walked over to a corpse lying on a slab.

‘Cause of death is a broken neck, snapped between C2 and C3—the second and third cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord is damaged there, so he would’ve stopped breathing and died within a couple of minutes. Now take a look at this.’ He indicated the left side of the head. ‘It looks as though he was hit on the side of the face. There’s bruising, and there are abrasions as a result of the blow. It seems the blow was hard enough to break the neck. But that’s very unusual. There’s not that much damage to the face—no cracked cheek bones, for example—so I don’t think the blow was very severe. You’d expect the head to whip sideways, but not the neck to break.’

‘What if someone broke his neck deliberately? Held him and then sharply twisted his head? If the bones are as brittle as you say, that would’ve been easy.’

‘Well, there’s only bruising on one side of the head, and there’s no evidence of a struggle. He would’ve fought back, and there would’ve been evidence. Skin under the fingernails or the like. There’s nothing.’

‘Could it have been an accident? He was hit on the face and broke his neck in the fall?’

Ian shook his head. ‘I can’t see how he’d fall on his head. And look at this.’

He lifted the right arm and showed Kubu the wrist, which was badly bruised.

Kubu looked carefully at the damage and nodded.

‘He also has a distal radial fracture,’ Ian added. ‘That’s a broken wrist.’

‘What could’ve caused that?’

Ian shrugged. ‘Given how weak his bones are, a rough grip from a strong man might’ve done it. If he fell, that bone’s the one that breaks when you try to save yourself, but given the damage to his spinal cord, that’s very unlikely.’

‘When did he die?’

‘Judging by what Detective Sergeant Segodi said about the state of rigor mortis, probably the day before the tourists found the body. I can’t do much better than that at this point.’ He paused.

Kubu waited. So far nothing particularly strange had been revealed, but he was sure there was more to come.

‘He’s old, all right,’ Ian continued. ‘Bushmen always have faces like walnuts from all that sun, even the young ones. But look at the hair. Pure white. And his bones are showing signs of severe osteoporosis. That’s leaching of the calcium. It happens in old people and makes the bones brittle. That may be why that blow snapped his neck, and the radius cracked under a rough grip.’

Kubu nodded. So, the man was old. That was no surprise either.

Now doubt entered Ian’s voice. ‘And yet, look at this.’ He offered Kubu an unidentified organ in a glass jar filled with clear liquid. ‘Go on, take it. Look closely.’ Kubu did, then handed it back none the wiser.

‘That’s the liver of a young man, Kubu. Maybe a forty-year old who didn’t drink. And then there’s this.’ He handed Kubu a container with what was clearly a heart. ‘That ticker would’ve gone on pumping for years. All of the internal organs are like that. It’s only the skin, the bones, and the hair that belong to a seventy or eighty-year old.’

Kubu frowned. ‘How can he be forty inside and seventy outside? Could it be just genetics? He chose his parents well?’

‘I’ve never read of anything like this,’ Ian replied. ‘And here’s something else.’

He passed Kubu a Petri dish containing a blackened lump of what Kubu took for metal.

‘That’s a bullet, no doubt about it. I found it by chance when I got intrigued by the young organs.’ Ian paused and corrected himself. ‘The young-looking organs, I should say. It was lodged in one of the rectus abdominus muscles, a couple of centimetres below the skin. Probably pretty spent when it hit him, or it would’ve killed him. I was surprised.’

‘Surprised? Was it recent?’

‘Not recent at all. I was surprised because there was no scar. Nothing. I take photos as well as examining the body before I start the autopsy. I went back to the photos to check. No scarring at all.’

‘If he was a nomadic bushman and someone shot him long ago, he wouldn’t see a doctor in the desert. If he didn’t die, he’d recover. How long would the scar take to disappear?’

Ian shook his head. ‘Never. The scar would never disappear. Certainly not without an expert plastic surgeon and proper medication at the time of the injury.’

Kubu was starting to understand why Ian was so puzzled. ‘Could he have swallowed the bullet or something?’

Again, Ian shook his head. ‘It would be impossible for it to get there from inside the body. And it’s badly corroded. It’s been there for a very long time. I’m surprised the lead didn’t cause him more problems.’

It was Kubu’s turn to shake his head. The Bushmen were strange people, and strange things happened with them, but a young man in an old frame, who seemed immune to bullets was another thing altogether. It didn’t make any sense.

Ian glanced at his friend and realised that Kubu had followed the same path he’d walked earlier that morning. He nodded slowly.

Kubu had had enough. ‘Well, let’s get out of here and go back to your office.’

***

‘So,’ Kubu summarized, after they’d washed their hands and disposed of the masks and gloves, ‘what we have is a very old man, apparently in good health except for his skin and his bones. He was killed by a blow to the head. And he was shot long ago, but that, presumably, has nothing to do with his death. Correct?’

Ian nodded, but said nothing.

Kubu brooded about it. ‘Is it possible we have the wrong end of the stick? Maybe he’s a middle-aged man, and had some illness that affected the bones. Maybe a nutrition problem? You said that Bushmen all have wrinkled skin.’

‘What about the white hair?’

Kubu shrugged. ‘Can’t that happen after an extreme shock of some kind, like being bitten by a scorpion or poisonous snake?’

Ian frowned. ‘I suppose it’s possible. But that doesn’t explain the bullet.’

Kubu was sure Ian had more to say. He leant back in his chair and waited.

Ian fiddled with his pipe and took a long draw. ‘You know I’m interested in the Bushmen, Kubu. Always have been. One of my colleagues at the University of Botswana told me about a visiting anthropologist from the US giving a seminar on what he called the ‘oral memory’ of the Bushman peoples. I wasn’t all that taken with the topic, but went along to see what he was talking about.

‘What made me think of it now was his story about a certain Bushman he’d met. He said the Bushman was a great raconteur of stories about historical events that had happened to his people. He’d tell them in the first person—as though he’d been there himself. The stories changed a little with each retelling, but all the main points stayed consistent. The anthropologist was fascinated by this. He postulated that it was a way history could be retained by a people without a written record—that they learnt the events as though they had actually been present. He thought perhaps that the story teller visualized himself experiencing events that had actually been seen by his father or grandfather—maybe with the help of a trance or drugs.’

‘It sounds as though that would lead to exaggeration rather than accuracy. I don’t remember any Bushman doing that.’

‘His suggestion was that only special men were selected for this oral memory task.’ Ian shrugged. ‘I said I wasn’t convinced. And he got a lot of questions after the talk, some pretty pointed.’

Kubu caught on. ‘You think our corpse in there could be one of the Bushmen he was talking about?’

‘I don’t know, but I got to thinking. If he was some sort of genetic freak—and you’ve seen the evidence yourself—then perhaps he’s a lot older than he looks. Maybe he’s around 90 or even older. Perhaps he was telling those stories in the first person because he actually was present at the events.’ Ian looked uncomfortable. ‘I know it’s farfetched, but just look at the internal shape this man was in.’ He hesitated. ‘One of the stories he told the anthropologist was of a hunting party from what is now Namibia that attacked his group and shot many of them. Men, women and children. Disgusting, but we know these things happened. He claimed to have been shot himself, but it wasn’t a bad wound. I was thinking about that bullet I found in him.’

‘But the last parties hunting Bushmen were nearly a hundred years ago!’

Ian nodded. ‘Yes, Kubu, I know. I said it’s farfetched. But still.’

Kubu thought for a few moments. Ian’s speculation wouldn’t go down well with an unimaginative by-the-book type of detective like Segodi. And why would Segodi care anyway? There was no reason to think there was any connection between the Bushman’s age and his death. No reason, but intuition told Kubu differently. He understood why Ian had called him.

The two friends sat quietly, each lost in thought puzzling about the anomalies they’d just talked about. Then Kubu’s stomach announced that it was time for lunch. He grunted and climbed to his feet. ‘I’d just stick to the bland facts with Detective Sergeant Segodi, Ian. Let’s see what he comes up with. I’ll let you know.’

They shook hands, and Kubu took his leave. When he reached the door, he hesitated. He’d learnt over the years to take Ian’s hunches as seriously as his own. He turned around.

‘Is there a way of accurately estimating a dead person’s age? Like that Bushman?’

Ian didn’t reply for several seconds. ‘I’ll have to look into it. I’m not sure there is. How long someone has been dead, yes. The longer the better. But not how long since the person was born.’

‘Well, send the bullet to forensics. See what they make of it.’

Ian nodded. ‘I’ll do that.’

Kubu waved, and left the pathologist sucking thoughtfully on his pipe.