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“The indications are that she was hanged” – read an excerpt from Martin Steyn’s Dark Traces

Dark Traces

Dark Traces is the English translation of Martin Steyn’s first suspense novel, Donker spoor. When a child is murdered, it always seems as if a light has been extinguished in a parent’s eyes.

They find her decomposing body in the veld. A teenager. She was raped and tortured for days. She was hanged.

She wasn’t the first.

The South African Police Service’s Warrant Officer Jan Magson, estranged from his son and still grieving for his wife, is assigned to the case. He has to look the mothers and fathers in the eye. He has to answer their questions. And he can’t.

Headlines question the police’s ability to protect the community from this evil. A newspaper prints a mother’s heart-wrenching letter to the killer. A father offers a substantial reward.
And every time another lead reaches a dead end, Magson finds himself looking down at another dead girl.

Winner of the 2015 ATKV Prize for Suspense Fiction, Martin Steyn’s Dark Traces deals with two sides of homicide: sadistic murder and euthanasia: killing for pleasure and killing for love.

One
March 9, 2014. Sunday.

“Yet another Sunday lunch with the family interrupted by blood and maggots,” remarked Warrant Officer Colin Menck beside him. “What a great job we have, hey, Mags?”

Behind the wheel Warrant Officer Jan Magson did not respond. He simply continued along the meandering Vissershok Road out of Durbanville, looking for the murder scene.

“Casey has embarked on a grand campaign to get a horse for her birthday. Next year, when she turns ten. Because it’s a special birthday.”

Magson glanced at the horses looking out over the white wooden fence. Further on, on the opposite side of the road, a sign indicated the turn-off to the Meerendal Wine Estate. The rest was just vineyards, the green much too vivid. He didn’t want a new docket.

“So I’m talking to myself again today.”

Sometimes Menck was like a child whose mouth had to be in constant motion, opening and closing, emitting sound. “I didn’t sleep well,” said Magson.

“I don’t ask a lot. ‘Yes’. ‘Oh’. Even a grunt will do.”

The vineyards petered out, leaving only faded brown grass. Magson glanced in the rear-view mirror. The road was empty, but his eyes lingered. The Corolla’s dust-specked mirror turned his irises an even grayer green. There were lines etched in his forehead and cracks around his eyes. At his temples, the hair was receding. His moustache was edging away from brown towards gray.

He looked away.

There were two klagtebakkies at the side of the road, white pickups bearing the South African Police Service’s logo and emergency number, blue lights on the roof and a holding area in the back. A few unmarked vehicles as well. No houses in the light brown surrounds. Magson parked the Corolla and turned off the ignition. As they got out, a uniformed officer came to meet them. They showed their identification cards.

The uniform nodded. “Warrant Officers. She’s lying some distance in.” He pointed with all five fingers extended.

“Were you first on the scene?” asked Menck.

“Yes, Warrant.”

“Who found her?”

“A birdwatcher.”

“Is he still here?” asked Magson.

“It was a woman, Warrant,” said the uniform, now looking at him. “I kept her here until the first detective took her statement. He let her go when he was done. I have her details.”

“That’s good. Is Captain Kritzinger at the body?”

“Yes, Warrant.” He removed his blue cap and scratched his black hair with the fingers of the same hand. It was glistening with sweat.

“All right. Take us to him.”

“Wait,” said Menck, “let me just fetch your bib.”

“As long as you realize you’ll have to carry it around the whole time,” grumbled Magson. “Because I’m not putting it on in this heat.”

The temperature was only part of the reason — as Menck knew perfectly well. Magson loathed the stupid crime-scene vests. Besides, it said crime scene investigator on the ones meant for the detectives.

“The blue brings out your eyes, man,” said Menck with a smile revealing his teeth.

“My eyes are green.”

They walked up to the barbed-wire fence running all along the shoulder of the road. Magson noticed no signs of rust or disrepair, but here where most of the vehicles were parked, four of the posts had been overturned.

“I take it, it was like this?”

“Yes,” said the uniform.

They followed him through the opening. No tire treads. And the gap was too small for a vehicle to fit through. Had the victim walked? Or had she been carried?

Everything in the hilly environment looked the same — brown and dead, like the tall grass brushing against the legs of his trousers. Except for the snake of reeds, most likely following a small stream. In the distance was a clump of blue gum trees. The air was dry and the smell reminded him of chili, the flakes Menck was always shoving under his nose. Sweat trickled down his neck and he wondered how much further it was to the body.

Reaching the top of a hill, Magson saw the people. Members of the Local Criminal Record Center had begun to document the scene. Captain Henz Kritzinger was in conversation with a small group of people, one of whom was the forensic pathologist — she stood out like a beacon in her white overalls and the bright orange vest with the words forensic pathology services on it.

Captain Kritzinger grimaced. “Well, do what you can.”

The LCRC member nodded and walked off.

“Captain,” greeted Magson.

“The doctor thinks we have a problem.”

“She has already begun decomposing in this heat,” said Doctor Sinette Killian, brushing an errant brown lock from her forehead, “but the indications are that she was hanged.”

“Hanged?” asked Menck. “I can’t remember us ever having a murder by hanging.”

“I can.”

“That is the problem,” said Kritzinger.

“There was a girl, around September, October last year, I think, perhaps November,” explained Doctor Killian. “There were signs of sexual assault. She was also dressed, but her panties were gone.”

“But she wasn’t one of ours,” said Menck.

“I can’t remember who the investigating officer was, but as far as I know, the docket is still open.”

Two for the price of one, Magson thought. Fantastic.

The body looked like that of a teenage girl. She was clothed in a pair of shorts and a white top with spaghetti straps, but her feet were bare. Her abdomen was severely distended with gas and the exposed skin was a brownish yellow with dark green blotches. There was a lively presence of maggots, some quite large. Thick, dark fluid had seeped from her nostrils and mouth. The smell — something resembling rotten eggs and decaying meat coupled with that sweet smell unique to humans — was so strong that Magson could taste it at the back of his throat, and he knew it would be clinging to his clothes all the way home.

Doctor Killian knelt next to the body and gently turned the girl’s head away from them. Her swollen face did not look good — the first wave of blowfly females had targeted her eyes, nose, mouth and ears to lay their eggs. But it was evident from the lush dark brown ponytail that she’d had beautiful hair. A discolored furrow was visible in areas around her throat and neck, despite the attentions of the maggots.

“The furrow is high here against the throat,” indicated the pathologist. “Then it slants upward around the sides of the neck to the back.” She looked up at Magson and squinted against the sun. “This is where the knot would’ve been.”

He walked around the body and crouched on the other side. Blowflies buzzed around the girl, touching down, lifting off. The frenzied maggots were eating as if they knew their time was running out. The girl’s clothes were not torn. Everything was where it should be. “And you say it looks like the previous one, Doc?”

“I’d like to do the post mortem first and have a look at my report on last year’s case, but murder victims who were hanged are extremely rare, as you’re well aware. Death by hanging is pretty much always suicide. So it would be quite a coincidence if we’re looking at two different killers.”

“Coincidence,” said Magson. “Not likely. How long do you think she’s been lying here?”

“Five to eight days maybe.”

He placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself erect. All his hinges were in need of a few squirts of Q20. The left knee could do with some new parts.

Menck was looking around, rubbing his short dark brown hair, then stroking his moustache and goatee. “It’s far to those bloekomtrees. If she was hanged there, why drag her all the way over here?”

Doctor Killian rose as well. “There are indications that she had been bound.”

“But he untied her,” said Magson. “Probably after. No rope left with the body.”

“Feels more like a dump site,” said Menck.

“What’s the birdwatcher’s story?”

“She saw some or other bird and told her husband to stop,” said Captain Kritzinger. “Got out and followed the thing to hell and gone, binoculars in one hand, bird guide in the other. Her husband says it’s the story of his life.”

“And then she found the girl.”

“Hmm. I don’t think the husband will be stopping for a bird again any time soon.”

Menck chuckled.

Magson looked back towards the road, despite the hills hiding it from view. “I’m wondering about the fence.”

“Did he break it,” asked Menck, “or find it that way?”

“LCRC will have a look in any case,” said Kritzinger.

“Hanging.” Magson turned his attention back to the ugly furrow in the girl’s neck.

“It’s not just a way to kill someone. It’s also a form of execution.”

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