His flight had been delayed for three hours at Nairobi, and despite four large whiskies he slept only fitfully until the intercontinental Boeing touched down at Heathrow. Johnny Lance felt as though someone had thrown a handful of grit in each eye, and his mood was ugly as he came through the indignity of Customs and Immigration into the main hall of the international terminus.
The Van Der Byl Diamond Company’s London agent was there to meet him.
‘Pleasant trip, Johnny?’
‘Like the one to Hell,’ Johnny grunted.
‘Good practice for you.’ The agent grinned. The two of them had seen some riotous times together.
Reluctantly Johnny grinned back at him.
‘You got me a room and a car?’
‘Dorchester – and Jag.’ The agent handed over the car keys. ‘And I’ve got two first-class seats reserved on tomorrow’s nine o’clock flight back to Cape Town. Tickets at the hotel reception desk.’
‘Good boy.’ Johnny dropped the keys into the pocket of his cashmere overcoat and they started for the exit. ‘Now where is Tracey van der Byl?’
The agent shrugged. ‘Since I wrote to you she has dropped out of sight. I don’t know where you can start looking.’
‘Great, just great!’ said Johnny bitterly as they came out into the car park. ‘I’ll start with Benedict.’
‘Does the Old Man know about Tracey?’
Johnny shook his head. ‘He’s a sick man. I didn’t tell him.’
‘Here’s your car.’ The agent stopped by the pearl-grey Jaguar. ‘Any chance of a drink together?’
‘Not this trip, sorry.’ Johnny slipped in behind the wheel. ‘Next time.’
‘I’ll hold you to that,’ said the agent and walked away.
It was almost dark by the time Johnny crossed the Hammersmith flyover in the moist smoky grey of the evening, and he lost himself twice in the maze of Belgravia before he found the narrow mews behind Belgrave Square and parked the Jaguar.
The exterior of the flat had been lavishly redecorated since his last visit, and Johnny’s mouth twisted. He might not be so hot at earning the stuff – but our boy Benedict certainly was a dab hand at spending it.
There were lights burning and Johnny hit the door knocker half a dozen lusty cracks. It echoed hollowly about the mews, and in the silence that followed Johnny heard the whisper of voices from behind the curtains, and a shadow passed quickly across the window.
Johnny waited three minutes in the cold, then he stepped back into the middle of the mews.
‘Benedict van der Byl,’ he bellowed. ‘I’ll give you a count of ten to get this door open. Then I’ll kick the bloody thing down.’
He drew breath, and bellowed again.
‘This is Johnny Lance – and you know I mean it.’
The door opened almost immediately. Johnny pushed his way through it, not glancing at the man who held it, and started for the lounge.
‘Dammit, Lance. You can’t go in there.’ Benedict van der Byl started after him.
‘Why not?’ Johnny glanced back at him. ‘It is a Company flat – and I’m the General Manager.’
Before Benedict could reply, Johnny was through the door.
One of the girls picked up her clothing from the floor and ran naked into the bedroom passage. The other pulled a full-length caftan over her head and glared at Johnny sulkily. Her hair was in wild disorder, fluffed out into a grotesque halo of stiff curls.
‘Nice party,’ said Johnny. He glanced at the movie projector on the side table, and then at the screen across the room. ‘Films and all.’
‘Are you the Fuzz?’ demanded the girl.
‘You’ve got an infernal cheek, Lance.’ Benedict van der Byl was beside him, tying the belt of his silk dressing-gown.
‘Is he Fuzz?’ the girl demanded again.
‘No,’ Benedict assured her. ‘He works for my father.’ With the statement he seemed to gather self-assurance, drawing himself up to his full height and smoothing his long dark hair with one hand. His voice regained its polish and lazy inflection. ‘Actually, he is Daddy’s messenger boy.’
Johnny turned to him, but he addressed the girl without looking at her.
‘Beat it, girlie. Follow your friend.’
‘Beat it!’ Johnny’s voice crackled like a bush fire, and she went.
The two men stood facing each other. They were the same age, in their early thirties – both tall, both dark-haired – but different in every other way.
Johnny was big in the shoulder and lean across the hips and belly, his skin polished and browned by the desert sun. The line of his heavy jawbone stood out clearly, and his eyes seemed still to seek far horizons. His voice clipped and twanged with the accents of the other land.
‘Where is Tracey?’ he asked.
Benedict lifted one eyebrow in a pantomime of arrogant surprise. His skin was pale olive, unstained by sunlight for it was months since he had last visited Africa. His lips were very red, as though they had been painted, the classical lines of his features were blurred by flesh. There were soft little pouches under his eyes, and a plumpness beneath the silk dressing-gown that suggested he ate and drank often and exercised infrequently.
‘My dear chap, what on earth makes you think I know where my sister is? I haven’t seen her for weeks.’
Johnny turned away and crossed to one of the paintings on the far wall. The room was hung with good original South African artists – Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and Tretchikof – an unusual mixture of techniques and styles, but someone had convinced the Old Man they were sound investments.
Johnny turned back to face Benedict van der Byl. He studied him as he had the paintings, comparing him with the clean young athlete he had been a few years before. A clear mental image in his mind pictured Benedict moving with leopard grace across the green field of play under the packed grandstands, turning smoothly beneath the high floating arc of the ball to gather it neatly, head high, and break back infield to open the line for the return kick.
‘You’re getting fat, Laddy Buck,’ he said softly, and Benedict’s anger stained his cheeks dull red.
‘Get out of here,’ he snapped.
‘In a minute – tell me about Tracey first.’
‘I’ve told you – I don’t know where she is. Whoring it up around Chelsea, I expect.’
Johnny felt his own anger surge fiercely, but his voice remained level.
‘Where is she getting the money, Benedict?’
‘I don’t know – the Old Man–’
Johnny cut him short. ‘The Old Man is keeping her on an allowance of ten pounds a week. From what I hear she’s throwing more than that around.’
‘Christ, Johnny,’ Benedict’s tone became conciliatory, ‘I don’t know. It’s not my business. Perhaps Kenny Hartford is–’
Again Johnny interrupted impatiently. ‘Kenny Hartford is giving her nothing. That was part of the divorce agreement when they split up. Now I want to know who is subsidizing her trip to oblivion. How about it, big brother?’
‘Me?’ Benedict was indignant. ‘You know there is no love wasted between us.’
‘Must I spell it out?’ Johnny asked. ‘All right, then. The Old Man is dying – without losing his horror of all weakness and sin. If Tracey turns into a drug-soaked little tramp – then there’s a good chance that our boy Benedict will come back into full favour. It would be a good gamble on your part to lay out a few thousand now, to send Tracey to Hell. Cut her off completely from her father – and all those nice fat millions.’
‘Who said anything about drugs?’ Benedict blustered.
‘I did.’ Johnny stepped up to him. ‘You and I have a little unfinished business. It would give me intense pleasure to take you to pieces and see what makes you work.’
He held Benedict’s eyes for long seconds, then Benedict looked down and fiddled with the cord of his dressing-gown.
‘Where is she, Benedict?’
‘I don’t know, damn you!’
Johnny moved softly across to the movie projector and picked up a reel of film from the table beside it. He peeled off a few feet of celluloid from the reel and held it up to the light.
‘Pretty!’ he said, but the line of his mouth tightened with disgust.
‘Put that down,’ snapped Benedict.
‘You know what the Old Man thinks about this sort of thing, don’t you, Benedict?’
Suddenly Benedict went pale.
‘He wouldn’t believe you.’
‘Yes, he would.’ Johnny tossed the reel on the table and turned back to Benedict. ‘He believes me because I’ve never lied to him.’
Benedict hesitated, wiped his lips nervously with the back of his hand.
‘I haven’t seen her for two weeks. She was renting a place in Chelsea. Stark Street. No. 23. She came to see me.’
‘I lent her a couple of pounds,’ Benedict muttered sulkily.
‘A couple of pounds?’ Johnny asked.
‘All right, a couple of hundred. After all, she is my sister.’
‘Damn decent of you,’ Johnny lauded him. ‘Write down the address.’
Benedict crossed to the leather-topped writing desk and scribbled on a card. He came back and handed the card to Johnny.
‘You like to think you’re big and dangerous, Lance.’ His voice was pitched low but it shook with fury. ‘Well, I’m dangerous too – in a different sort of way. The Old Man can’t live for ever, Lance. When he’s gone I’m coming after you.’
‘You frighten the hell out of me.’ Johnny grinned at him, and went down to the car.
The traffic was solid in Sloane Square as Johnny eased the Jaguar slowly down towards Chelsea. There was plenty of time to think; to remember how close they had been – the three of them. He and Tracey and Benedict.
Running together as wild young things with the endless beaches and mountains and sun-washed plains of Namaqualand as their playground. That was before the Old Man made the big strike on the Slang River, before there was money for shoes. When Tracey wore dresses made from flour sacks sewn together, and they rode to school each day, all three of them bare-back on a single pony like a row of bedraggled little brown sparrows on a fence.
He remembered how the long sun-drenched weeks while the Old Man was away were spent in laughter and secret games. How they climbed the kopje behind the mud-walled shack each evening and looked towards the north across the limitless land, flesh-coloured and purple in the sunset, searching for the wisp of dust in the distance that would mean the Old Man was coming home.
Then the almost painful excitement when the dusty, rackety Ford truck with its mudguards tied on with wire was suddenly there in the yard, and the Old Man was climbing down from the cab, a sweat-stained hat on the back of his head and the dust thick in the stubble of his beard, swinging Tracey squealing above his head. Then turning to Benedict, and lastly to Johnny. Always in that order – Tracey, Benedict, Johnny.
Johnny had never wondered why sometimes he was not first. It was always that way. Tracey, Benedict, Johnny. The same way as he had never wondered why his name was Lance and not van der Byl. Then it had come to an end suddenly, the whole brightly sunlit dream of childhood was gone and lost.
‘Johnny, I’m not your real father. Your father and mother died when you were very young.’ And Johnny had stared at the Old Man in disbelief.
‘Do you understand, Johnny?’
Tracey’s hand groped for his beneath the table top like a little warm animal. He jerked his own hand away from it.
‘I think you’d better not call me that any more, Johnny.’ He could remember the exact tone of the Old Man’s voice, neutral, matter of fact, as it splintered the fragile crystal of his childhood to fragments. The loneliness had begun.
Johnny accelerated the Jaguar forward and swung into the King’s Road. He was surprised that the memory hurt so intensely – time should have mellowed and softened it.
His life from then on had become a ceaseless contest to win the Old Man’s approval – he dare not hope for his love.
Soon there were other changes, for a week later the old Ford had come roaring unexpectedly out of the desert in the night, and the barking of the dogs and the Old Man’s shouted laughter had brought them, sleepy-eyed, tumbling from their bunks.
The Old Man had lit the Petromax lamp and sat them on the kitchen chairs about the scrubbed deal table. Then with the air of a conjuror he had lain something that looked like a big lump of broken glass on the table.
The three sleepy children had stared at it solemnly, not understanding. The harsh glare of the Petromax was captured within the crystal, captured, repeated, magnified and thrown back at them in fire and blue lightning.
‘Twelve carats – ’ gloated the Old Man, ‘blue-white and perfect, and there is a cartload more where that came from.’
After that there were new clothes and motor cars, the move to Cape Town, the new school and the big house on Wynberg Hill – but always the contest. The contest that did not earn the Old Man’s approval as it was designed to do, but earned instead Benedict van der Byl’s jealousy and hatred. Without his drive and purpose, Benedict could not hope to match Johnny’s achievements in the classroom and on the sports field. He fell far behind the pace that Johnny set – and hated him for it.
The Old Man did not notice for he was seldom with them now. They lived alone in the big house with the thin silent woman who was their housekeeper, and the Old Man came infrequently and for short periods. Always he seemed tired and distracted. Sometimes he brought presents for them from London and Amsterdam and Kimberley, but the presents meant very little to them. They would have liked it better had it stayed the way it was in the desert.
In the void left by the Old Man the hostility and rivalry between Johnny and Benedict flourished to such proportions that Tracey was forced to choose between them. She chose Johnny.
In their loneliness they clung to each other.
The grave little girl and the big gangling boy built together a castle against the loneliness. It was a bright secure place where the sadness could not reach them – and Benedict was excluded from it.
Johnny swung the Jaguar out of the line of traffic into Old Church Street, down towards the river in Chelsea. He drove automatically and the memories came crowding back.
He tried to recapture and hold the castle of warmth and love that he and Tracey had built so long ago, but instantly his mind leapt to the night on which it had collapsed.
One night in the old house on Wynberg Hill Johnny had come awake to the sound of distant weeping. He had gone barefooted in his pyjamas, following that heart-rending whisper of grief. He was afraid, fourteen years old and afraid in the dark house.
Tracey was weeping into her pillow and he had stooped over her.
‘Tracey. What is it? Why are you crying?’
She had jumped up, kneeling on the bed, and flung both arms about his neck.
‘Oh, Johnny. I had a dream, a terrible dream. Hold me, please. Don’t go away, don’t leave me.’ Her whisper was still thick and muffled with tears. He had gone into her bed and held her until at last she slept.
Every night after that he had gone to her room. It was innocent and completely childlike, the twelve-year-old girl and the boy who was her brother, in fact if not in name. They held each other in the bed, and whispered and laughed secretly until sleep carried them both away.
Then suddenly the castle was blasted by the bright electric glare of the overhead light. The Old Man was standing in the door of the bedroom, and Benedict was behind him in his pyjamas dancing with excitement and chanting triumphantly.
‘I told you, Pa! I told you so!’
The Old Man was shaking with rage, the bush of grey hair standing erect like the mane of a wounded lion. He had dragged Johnny from the bed, and struck away Tracey’s clinging hands.
‘You little whore,’ he bellowed, holding the terrified boy easily with one hand and leaning forward to strike his daughter in the face with his open hand. Leaving her sobbing, face down on the bed, he dragged Johnny down the passages to the study on the ground floor. He threw him into the room with a violence that sent him staggering against the desk.
The Old Man had gone to the rack and taken out a light Malacca cane. He came to Johnny and, taking a handful of his hair, threw him face down over the desk.
The Old Man had beaten him before, but never like this. Mad with rage the Old Man’s blows had been unaimed, some fell across Johnny’s back.
Yet in the agony it was deadly important to the boy that he should not cry out. He bit through his lip so the taste of blood was salt and copper in his mouth. He must not hear me cry! And he choked back the moans feeling his pyjama trousers hanging heavy and sodden with blood.
His silence served only as a goad to the Old Man’s fury. Flinging the cane aside, he pulled the boy upright and attacked him with his hands. Slamming Johnny’s head from side to side with full, open-handed blows that burst in Johnny’s skull with blinding flashes of light.
Still Johnny kept on his feet, clinging to the edge of the desk. His lips broken and swollen and his face bloated and darkening with bruises, until at last the Old Man was driven far beyond the borders of sanity. He bunched his fist and drove it into Johnny’s face – and with a wonderful sense of relief Johnny felt the pain go out in a warm flood of darkness.