THERE ARE QUESTIONS that run through your head when you find out that you’re a serial killer. “Am I more evil than Ted Bundy?” is one. “I wonder whether I’ll be on the Crime & Investigation Network?” is another. But on the whole, it’s the who, what, when and why of it that really takes up the mental bandwidth. So, here goes:
‘My name is Baxter Zevcenko. I am sixteen years old. I go to Westridge High School in Cape Town and I have no friends. I’ve killed people. Lots of people. Brutally. At least I hear they were people. They looked more like monsters to me. Anyway, I won’t bore you with the details. If you’re interested, look on the Internet.
‘People are saying that I’m satanic but this is not true. I have seen things. I saw the great Mantis God of Africa fighting a creature from the primordial depths, a billion-year war until finally the Mantis threw the writhing creature from the heavenly sky into the deepest pit. I’ve seen the past through the lens of the Eye and it wasn’t in tasteful sepia. It was etched in blood and death and filtered through a veil of tears. I’ve seen the sweating, grunting, cawing, scratching, bleeding, yelping feathered, scaled and clawed abyss beneath the city and, believe me when I tell you this, it’s not pretty –’
‘Baxter,’ my psychiatrist interrupts, ‘I thought we’d agreed that these delusions were counterproductive?’
I take a breath and force the images from my mind. ‘None of that matters. There is no Mantis and there is no dark, primordial creature. There is no weapons chemist, no bounty hunter and no girlfriend to rescue. There is just me and I am sick. In the end we’re all just victims of our own perceptions, sparky. I hope you can see that.’
‘CHARLIE, DELTA, NINER, that’s a big ten-four,’ Rafe growls into his CB radio. I have ten minutes before I need to make the walk to school. My parents force me to walk to school even when it rains. It’s raining. The CB hisses, crackles and squelches like the soundtrack to a horror movie about a demonically possessed computer that considers humanity a lower form of intelligence that must be eliminated.
I’m lying in our living room on the shaggy burnt-orange rug that’s so old it’s been retro twice. Rafe, my older brother by two years, has his portable CB radio positioned strategically on the small circular glass table next to the TV. Strategic, because he’s the Sun Tzu of irritation and the CB radio rattles on the glass creating a perfect frequency of brain death. I push my long fringe away from my glasses and glare at the back of his skull.
‘Turn it down,’ I say. He turns his shaggy red-haired, knob-shaped head and stares at me with the knowing-eye. I feel the rage build like a dark wave inside of me.
The knowing-eye is a weapon passed down from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather on my father’s side has it. I suspect it’s what drove my grandmother to alcoholism and sex addiction before reforming, divorcing Grandad, and joining a racist commune in the Northern Cape. That and the fact that my grandfather thinks that there are giant shape-shifting crows out to get him.
The eye skipped a generation and now Rafe, the eldest son, has it. In a single glance it can see right through you like an X-ray, revealing your most vulnerable spots, your most sensitive secrets.
Rafe ignores me and flips open one of his stupid South African history books. Apparently most people chilling out on the lower end of the autistic spectrum obsess about things. For Rafe it’s South African history. He has a whole library of books which he peers at constantly, as if trying to find patterns in the sprawling, blood-soaked tapestry of our colonial heritage. He’s really weird. It’s not enough that his warped mind encroaches on my waking life, but now his weird obsession with ox-wagons and Boers is infiltrating my dreams too.
He turns to me, opens the book to a double-page spread on some long-forgotten Boer battle against the English and jabs his finger insistently at it, like he’s trying to teach a monkey to read. It’s like dangling a baby in front of a pit bull. I can’t help it. The dark wave crashes over me. Snarling with rage, I push myself up from the floor and jump onto Rafe’s back, grabbing his neck in a sleeper hold and dragging him to the floor.
From experience I know I only have seconds to inflict as much damage as possible before my mother comes to break us up. I snarl and hiss with rage as I jackhammer my fists into his kidneys and he struggles violently. It’s not enough but at least it’s something. My mother’s footsteps pound down the stairs. We break apart and I pat Rafe good-naturedly on the back.
‘We’ve just been play-fighting, Mum,’ I say as she walks through into the living room.
‘Baxter, what the hell is wrong with you?’ she asks, peeling back the layers of my face with her straight-razor gaze. Clearly she isn’t fooled by the old play-fighting ruse.
‘You’re sixteen, for God’s sake,’ she says. ‘Do you think picking on Rafe is something a good brother does?’
It’s rhetorical but I can’t help but point out her false assumption that I actually want to be a good brother. That goes down like playing Iron Maiden’s ‘Number of the Beast’ at Sunday school.
The crux of the problem is that Rafe has learning difficulties and goes to a special school and, as such, is excused from mundane chores such as reason and responsibility for his actions.
‘I wasn’t picking –’ I begin.
‘He can’t help it,’ she whispers tersely.
This is a losing hand and I know when to fold. My mother and I are just going to have to agree to disagree about Rafe’s cognitive capabilities. While she thinks he’s some kind of supertard who is totally oblivious to the irritation he directs at me like a laser beam, I disagree. He can help it all right. It’s just that his sole purpose on Earth is to drive me clinically insane.
‘Apologise,’ my mother says, arching a thin eyebrow.
‘Sorry,’ we both mumble and limply shake hands. I turn, grab my bag, and walk out the front door into the rain, ignoring my mother’s offer of an umbrella.
I trudge through the downpour. It’s unfair. Rafe is the bane of my existence. He barely speaks, and when he does it’s all Boer generals, English concentration camps and San mythology. (As far as I can tell, their mythology seems to hold with the golden rule of religious practice in that it’s entirely insane. The shape-shifting mantis god fell in love with an antelope and then created the moon and a whole bunch of weird monsters because, hey, I’m a shape-shifting god, why not? Seems totally legit.) I wish my parents would just medicate him. But life is unfair; it’s like a kids’ birthday party where the mom rigs the pass-the-parcel so that a kid she likes gets the prize.
I remember how it works. The little blonde kids with cherub faces and dial-up Internet minds (zzrrgggkkkk eeeeee zrgggkkkk) win pass-the-parcel. When I was a kid I went to hundreds of parties and I never won pass-the-parcel. That’s statistically improbable and can only point to the fact that none of the moms liked me.
It’s because I was one of those kids that made other kids cry, a natural talent that I couldn’t help exercising. If there are two things that moms like it’s Josh Groban and kids not crying, and since Josh only puts out a new album every couple of years they tend to focus on the kids-not-crying bit.
The sky is almost the exact grey of the diseased lung of a two-packs-a-day smoker. It makes me want a cigarette. I turn off the busy main road and make my way into the subway next to the train station, the skanky sacred secret grotto where my girlfriend Esmé and I meet to exchange smoke and saliva before school starts.
The subway curves beneath the train line like a dirty catacomb, the chaotic graffiti like the multi-hued bones of dragons buried in the walls. I cup my hands to light a cigarette and then lean back against the wall and watch the smoke twist and curl like two giant creatures fighting. My eyes wander across the opposite wall and take in the scrawls and tags left by the school-going population that passes through this tunnel daily.
I recognise the Inhalant Kid’s tag, a stylised spray can with ‘IK’ scrawled next to it in radiant blue. Some of his pieces along the train tracks are quite beautiful, in a warped, hallucinatory sort of way. He only really hangs out with the graf kids because they offer a steady supply of aerosol, but he’s not actually bad at it.
‘Tammy Laubscher gives terrible head’ is scrawled in thick black marker next to a drawing of a dick with a cross through it. By all accounts this is a completely factual statement; something about her snaggle-tooth interfering with her progress as a fella-trice. Next to that is ‘Call Ms Jones for a good time. 076 924 8724’ in red paint. Our geography teacher clearly got on the wrong side of one of the graf kids. Her real number I can confirm.
A small, bright piece draws my attention. It’s a swollen red eye that seems to drip yellow paint from it like pus. Beneath it are scrawled five chilling words: ‘Baxter Zevcenko is a murderer.’ A cold feeling slides from the top of my head right down through my body. Fuck. Kyle must have told someone about my dreams. Guess best-friend confidentiality isn’t a ‘thing’ any more.
I can still remember last night’s foray into my chaotic, nonsensical dreamworld clearly. The smell of the dark, dank moss in the forest was so strong, pines swaying in the wind like the priests of some ancient, lost religion. The moon was a vicious silver-bright sickle overhead and everything was still.
I was on my BMX, easing the wheels forward and listening to their rubber tread making a crunching sound on the pine needs. Then I saw it in front of me: the huge emerald-backed mantis swaying elegantly, drunkenly in the breeze like it was performing t’ai chi. It dipped its huge inverted-pyramid head, its diaphanous, shimmering wings spread wide as it started to dance, somehow both comical and terrifying at the same time. It turned its head and looked at me with the knowing-eye, but it was terrible, like Sauron with an eye infection, dripping blood and fire into my brain. I tried to scramble away but it burned its way through my forehead.
After that all I could see were ox-wagons burning in the night and people being massacred. These dreams always end with people being massacred. It’s like my sleeping brain is constantly set to the History Channel. If all the re-enactments were directed by Quentin Tarantino.
‘Hey.’ The familiar jazz-singer voice jars me from my dream recollection. Esmé saunters through the subway and slouches against the wall next to me. Her short dark hair is mussed up and a long strand hangs down across an angular cheekbone of her pixie-like face. Her green eyes are framed with dark kohl which they’ll make her take off the minute she walks into school. She smells of smoke and jasmine perfume.
She pulls a cigarette from the pack in my hand and leans over for me to light it. Her hair falls into her face and I resist the urge to push it back. Something about the combination of the light in the subway, her smell and her closeness does something to me. Time compresses into this single point. My chest feels strange and I can’t think.
‘Jody Fuller was murdered,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘On the mountain.’
‘Fuck,’ I say. The coldness returns, sliding down my throat like a bad oyster. Jody Fuller was a year older than me but I had kissed her once. I remember she’d tasted faintly of milk and mint.
‘It’s funny,’ Esmé says. ‘I hated the bitch and now I kind of miss her.’
‘Yeah,’ I say.
We smoke in silence and then she flicks her butt into the gutter, pushes herself off the wall and leans across to smear a moist kiss across my lips.
‘Find me online later,’ she says, and then saunters away, her figure framed like a religious icon by the light pouring in through the entrance. I stay for a moment in the quiet subway. That kiss cleared the cache of an already bad day. I suck down the last of my cigarette and then push myself off the wall and head back into the rain. The rest of the walk is miserable. By the time I get to the old iron gates at the entrance of the school even my socks are wet.
Thankfully I had the foresight to wrap the contents of my backpack in a plastic bag. Along with my lunch and my school books is a four-page manifesto that could change everything. If all hell doesn’t break loose first. I face the gates of Westridge High and wipe the rain off my glasses.
Westridge is an imposing granite structure that has spat generations of suburban Capetonians from its iron jaws. Like all prominent high schools in the leafy Southern Suburbs we have lush school grounds, sophisticated computer labs that were out of date as soon as they were installed, a debating team, a competitive rugby team, and gangs, drugs, bulimia, depression and bullying.
It’s an ecosystem; a microcosm of the political, economic and military forces that shape the world. Some high-school kids worry about being popular or about getting good marks. I worry about maintaining a fragile gang treaty that holds Westridge together. Horses for courses, as my dad says.
I walk fast through the gates but then slow down again when I see Mikey Markowitz up ahead; a small banana-coloured beacon of dorkiness in his bright yellow rain jacket.
Mikey was my best friend in junior school. He was thoughtful, kind and concerned for my well-being. By the time high school rolled around I was rethinking our friendship. It became apparent that high-school kids, or at least the ones who looked like their parents injected them with human growth hormone and then beat the joy out of them with a leather strap, could smell the weakness that Mikey secreted into the air. He’s a chubby, pink, blond-haired vortex of neediness that’s like shit to the big, violent flies with dyslexia that circle the school. So I made a business decision.
If you’re climbing a mountain and the guy below you falls and starts dragging you down into a gaping, icy abyss, what do you do? You cut him loose. Well, high school is a gaping, icy abyss and I had to cut the cord that connected Mikey to me. Still, I feel a guilty twinge whenever I see him sitting alone at lunch break staring morosely at his cheese sandwich. I slow down to let Mikey gain distance. There’s no sense in dredging up the past.
Mikey disappears into the rain and I quickly scan the groups of blue-blazered juveniles that skulk in the corners. Cold, beady eyes regard me from across the Sprawl – our name for the strip of tar playground that runs from behind the red-brick school hall to the janitor’s hut at the edge of the lowest sports field.
The Sprawl is where everything important in the political life of Westridge happens. And important things are happening on this Monday morning. It’s a wonder the adults cannot feel it; the lines of power stretched tight across the playground crackling with energy. It’s almost pathetic to see the parentbots smile and drop their kids off into the seething ocean of chaos and fury, blissfully unaware and slightly high on expensive Italian espresso.
I stroll across to where the other members of the Spider are huddled in our usual corner and slip in with my clique, my protective bubble in the wilderness of high-school life.
‘What’s up, Bax?’ Zikhona growls, shoving me affectionately with her shoulder and almost knocking me over.
‘The demand for our product hopefully,’ I say with a grin.
‘Amen, brother,’ the Inhalant Kid wheezes.
‘Anything new?’ I ask.
‘The gangs are still at each other’s throats,’ Kyle says.
‘They haven’t seen my plan yet,’ I say with a smug smile. That’s what it’s all about. My plan. An intricate blueprint for the future of Westridge.
The Spider is different to most schoolyard organisations. In school, like in prison, if you don’t affiliate yourself you’re easy prey. Although you run a low risk of getting ass-raped (unless you go on rugby camp), it’s inadvisable to go without a crew to watch your back. The Spider evolved out of the primordial pit of the Sprawl. We’re a new form of life that survives not through strength but through agility.
We’re a small operation but a successful one. We found each other by the kind of freak radar that draws together kids that don’t really fit in. There’s me with my congenital eye condition and weird glasses. There’s Kyle the freakishly clever kid. Ty the Inhalant Kid, who has found his life’s purpose at the bottom of a paint tin, and Zikhona, who is big in a sumo wrestler kinda way. When we found each other it was like pieces of a puzzle fitting neatly together.
‘Do you think it’ll work?’ the Inhalant Kid asks nervously.
‘It better,’ Kyle says. ‘Or we’re seriously screwed.’
‘We could always kill Anwar,’ Zikhona says with a scowl. ‘And blame it on the Mountain Killer.’ I resist telling her the dreams I have where Anwar is just one of the many unfortunate souls that die screaming.
‘You cut the head off the chimera and another one will grow to take its place,’ Kyle says.
‘We’re not a gang,’ I say. ‘We’re a corporation.’
The truth is that our success hinges on the fact that we remain neutral among the axes of power – the two gangs that control Westridge High. The juggernaut that runs the school is the Nice Time Kids, led by self-styled warlord Anwar Davids. They’re dangerous, organised and the prime suppliers of drugs. Their management style is kind of like the Third Reich – big, cruel and requiring absolute loyalty of their members.
The other dog in the pit is the Form, led by Denton de Jaager. They run a business of fake doctors’ certificates, parental permission slips and leaked exam papers. They’re more like al-Qaeda – a networked, guerrilla-style militia that blends into the general school populace.
The problem is that the Sprawl isn’t big enough for both of them. Over the past year the tension has escalated and now they are snapping at each other’s throats, with nothing but the Spider standing between them. Because knives are so cheap and easily available, both gangs carry them. I know Anwar has access to guns too and I wonder how long it will be before Westridge has its debut drive-by shooting. Kyle calls high school a zero-sum game. It’s like Highlander, there can be only one (in this case gangs, rather than sword-wielding immortals with mullets).
It’s not the gutting of students that worries me though. We have a unique selling proposition, a great democratic product that, along with soccer, is the world’s favourite spectator sport. Yes, I’m talking about porn.
You’d think that in the digital age a pornography vendor would be as out of date as a crusty old guy in tie-dye selling LPs at a flea market. But like that old hippy there is a method to our madness. We don’t sell a product. We sell an experience.
You’re looking for Ron ‘The Hedgehog’ Jeremy’s first skin flick? The original Debbie Does Dallas? You’ve come to the right place, we can get them to you by the end of the day. We’re the Cinema Nouveau of the porn world. We deal in the Altman of anal and the Coen Brothers of the cumshot. In a better world we’d be part of Westridge’s cultural committee.
One student getting stabbed would be inconvenient. A gang war could be the death knell for our business. Lockers would be searched, pupils would be questioned, parents would be summoned, and there are just too many trails leading to us. So I have no choice but to intervene.
The school bell rings and we shuffle into the school hall for our first assembly of the term.
‘Did you tell anyone?’ I whisper to Kyle as we troop into the hall, kids around us jostling and yapping like dogs reacquainting themselves with the pack.
‘About your necrophilia?’ he replies. ‘Never, the secret will go with me to the grave. After which you can do with me what you will.’
‘My dreams, you tool. Did you tell anyone about my dreams?’
‘Oh captain, my captain. Do you question my loyalty?’
‘Cut the crap. Did you tell anyone or not?’
‘I am your faithful confidant. I would never reveal your sweaty, intimate secrets. They could use thumbscrews, they could use hair shirts, they could –’
‘Are they still … you know?’ He taps his temple.
I nod. ‘They’re getting worse I think. Pretty much every night now.’
‘What does the head-shrinker say?’
Dr Basson is the psychiatrist my parents send me to to help me ‘work out issues’. He’s a weird old guy who’s done all kinds of tests on me; intelligence tests, empathy tests, are-you-a-psycho? tests, even crackpot tests that seem like he’s checking for ESP. As far as I can tell my parents are wasting a fortune on the society-sanctioned witchcraft that is the psychology profession.
‘He says that they’re my psyche’s way of dealing with stress.’
‘Maybe you should take it easy,’ Kyle says.
‘Sure, I’ll take it easy. How does being expelled, with no source of income except the money your parents give you, sound?’
‘Fucking terrible,’ he says with a grimace.
‘Then don’t tell me to take it easy,’ I reply.
We slump into our seats in the hall and watch as the Form walk in and take their places at the back left. The Form is like the personification of inherited privilege. They carry themselves like wealthy Bond villains and think along the same lines. They’re not interested in money in the way the Nice Time Kids are. They’re interested in keeping themselves entertained by beating up everything and everyone that has the audacity to challenge them.
The Nice Time Kids, or the NTK as they’re more commonly known, take their places at the back right. If you distilled all the cruelty, all the hormonal surges, all the bad ideas and warrantless arrogance of adolescence into a single obscene organism, it’d be the NTK. They’re messy to a point way past the simple apathetic neglect of the rest of us. They wear their messiness like a badge; missing buttons, torn collars and cuffs, shoes scuffed and filled with holes, all ham-handedly proclaiming their affiliation. The rest of us are in between trying to figure out what the situation between the gangs is. Has there been a truce? Will sanity prevail? Will peace, goodwill and huge porn profit margins smile upon the Spider?
Anwar Davids, his uneven crew cut showing patches of his scalp in the artificial light, turns his head and smiles. The school holds its breath. Slowly he brings his hand up, widens his smile and draws his thumb across his throat, and then points straight at the solid figure of Denton de Jaager.
Denton extends his large, chubby hand to look uninterestedly at his nails and then leans back and yawns. A shiver of acknowledgement runs through the masses. At least everybody knows what’s happening.
The tension is broken as our headmaster, the Bearded One, ascends to the lectern. He raises his hand for silence even though nobody is talking. He rubs his mousy brown beard and begins to speak.
‘Welcome back from ahhh what I umm hope was a stimulating weekend.’ There are titters. Judging from some of the glassy eyes staring blankly forward it’s more likely that it was a stimulant weekend courtesy of the NTK.
‘Ahh, it’s unfortunate to start like this but, umm, the police inform me that another body has been found on the mountain.’ There’s a collective intake of breath. ‘We have, ermmm, asked a representative of the police force to, umm, speak to you this morning.’
A small, balding man sporting both an impressive handlebar moustache and an ugly burgundy suit strides onto the stage and pushes his John Lennon sunglasses onto his forehead.
‘Good morning, I’m Mr Beeld, a criminologist working on the Mountain Killer case. I know this is rather traumatic for everybody, but it’s important to remember that, worldwide, more people are killed by falling coconuts and defective toasters than by knife-wielding serial killers.’ He gives us a smile that’s meant to be reassuring. ‘Of course, we must take the necessary precautions and awareness is the number-one weapon in the fight against crime.
‘What we know is that either the victim knew the killer or the killer is very good at what he does. He used some kind of serrated blade to cut her throat and then carve the bloody likeness of an eye into her forehead. As you may already know, the eye is the calling card of the so-called “Mountain Killer”, a serial killer already responsible for the deaths of twelve people in the Cape Town area.
‘The all-seeing eye is of particular occult significance,’ Beeld continues. ‘It represents spiritual sight and transcendental vision. The fact that it is used as a calling card means that this could be the work of a cult, or of an individual with an interest in occult lore. Serial killers generally show a lack of empathy and a superiority complex, often with delusions of grandeur. There is a pathological need for control. And murder, of course, is the ultimate form of control.
‘If you have seen anything suspicious, please report it to your local police station immediately.’
‘I heard that it was Jody Fuller,’ Kyle whispers.
‘Yeah, Esmé told me,’ I reply under my breath.
‘Good thing you never actually got together with her.’
‘Guess so.’ The thought of Jody dead makes me feel cold all over again. My forehead begins to throb and I have to force myself not to think about the goddamn dreams again. I swear I’m going find that fucker who decided to put my name on his little piece of wall art and make him pay.
‘She was stuck-up,’ I whisper.
Kyle gives me a strange look. ‘Yeah, but she didn’t deserve to die.’
I shrug. Life is unfair.
The assembly ends and we push our way out of the school hall and into the granite quad that is the heart of the school’s 150 years of colonial history. Westridge has been expanded with multiple layers of concrete and fibreglass, but it’s this granite centre which contains its ancestral DNA. Rah, rah and tally-ho, boys.
‘Hey, Baxter,’ Courtney Adams says with a coquettish smile.
I ignore her. She’s an NPC, a non-playing character, a pawn who is preoccupied with mindless social programming and is distant from the power centres of the Sprawl. People like her can be used to run interference, used and manipulated, but should never be trusted or considered seriously when planning strategically.
I pass Ricket Hendries and slip a flash drive filled with Asian girl-on-girl action into his hand. He grins and gives me the thumbs up. I grin back and breathe in the sweet smell of sweat, whiteboard marker and fear. The smells of high school.
It’s like chess. Jocks, Ricket and his gang of cheap deodorant-scented Cro-Magnons, are knights. You can’t directly manipulate them because they believe that their superior muscle density means they’re in control. But they can always be moved sideways, obtusely angled so that they believe they are the ones doing the moving.
Rooks are the big violent loner kids like Josh Southfield. His dad is in jail for a white-collar crime, he has gruesome acne and he does badly at school and, as such, has very little to lose. Moving him is as easy as telekinesis.
And me? Well, I don’t aspire to be king. That’s just like being a highly paid pawn. I’m a bishop, a vizier. I’m always behind the scenes pulling the strings. If I use my full potential I’m the most powerful piece on the board.
We shoulder our way past the NPCs into metalwork class. Mr Olly, our moustachioed metalwork teacher, looks like a former member of the security police who has been granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for apartheid atrocities. Most of the classherd comply with the instructions Olly puts on the board, their tongues lolling out of their mouths like they have just been shot through the head with a bolt gun in an abattoir and haven’t yet begun to realise that something is wrong. I wait until Olly is distracted and then saunter over to a bench at the back of the class.
‘General,’ I say to the youth whose oversized head is the result of a childhood case of elephantiasis. He looks up to reveal cool, grey eyes. Toby September; taunted ceaselessly since birth, he channelled his rage into climbing the social hierarchy and is now general of the Nice Time Kids, second only to Anwar himself.
‘Zevcenko,’ he says, taking his time over my name.
‘I need an audience with the Warlord,’ I say. The oversized head nods thoughtfully but when he speaks his voice is acidic.
‘Lunchtime at Central,’ he says. ‘But I would advise against doing anything that will upset him.’
I smile. It is a veiled threat, of course, but I was born for this kind of manoeuvring. I bow my head in thanks and return to my desk. First objective achieved.