Peter_Church_Cracker_Jack

Crackerjack – Peter Church

Salt from sweat running down his legs stung the red, blue, and violet cuts and bruises. He checked the display: three quarters done.

Peter Church, the author of Crackerjack, has asked his friends to send pictures of themselves reading his book. During April he had collected these photographs and he shared them on Instagram.

At the end of the month Peter made a collage of the best pictures he had received.


Peter will be at Franschhoek Literary Festival on Friday 17 May. He will share a stage with Deon Meyer, Imraan Coovadia and Africa Melane. Their session is called ‘Stirring the plot’. It starts at 11:30 and takes place in the New School Hall.


Down below is the first chapter of Crackerjack. Enjoy!


ONE

At the Sea Point gymnasium in Cape Town, Daniel Le Fleur’s trainers struck the treadmill mat in an even rhythm. His left arm was enclosed in a cast. Perspiration dripped off his chin and trickled down his vest. The diagnostics on the treadmill showed he was halfway through a twenty-minute session. He would much rather be riding his Rush 29 on the mountain.
     If he still had it …
     Seven weeks ago as he descended the dirt track from the King’s Blockhouse, three muggers jumped him, pushed him off his bike and over the edge, a two-meter fall. When they came for his cell and Go-Pro, he hooked one bandit with a piece of broken tree stump, could not argue with the other guy’s handgun.
     He tapped the acceleration lever with his right hand and increased the speed by half a point. In the background, a vacuum cleaner whirred, weights clanged and music barely distinguishable as Rihanna thumped from club speakers. A shiny railing separated the gym floor from a drop into a shallow swim pool. A woman dived in, a blue cap with Dolphins written on it, cut through the water like she was propelled by a motor.
     The muggers took his bike, his cell, his gear, his helmet with the Go-Pro, left him to walk barefoot down the contour path in his underpants. There was a moment when one bandit seemed likely to stab him, so walking away had some upside.
     He closed his eyes. He did not have to imagine the bikejackers stashing his Rush in a ravine, or the trio making their way down the mountain, smoking weed and laughing. A 3G SIM card in the adapted Go-Pro on his helmet automatically streamed its output to the server at his home.
     His left calf muscle tightened and he opened his eyes. Down below, the swimmer reached the wall, folded forward, and tumbled over.
     Within 24 hours of the attack, all three muggers were in custody. But the bike was gone. Somehow there is always a fourth.
     Salt from sweat running down his legs stung the red, blue, and violet cuts and bruises. He checked the display: three quarters done. Tucked in the well alongside the screen of the treadmill, his cell phone beeped. He leaned forward and tapped the phone’s screen—two missed calls from the same unidentified number.
     He ignored the calls and placed the cell back on top of his car keys and RSA identity card.
     Daniel Le Fleur was thirty-two years old, a quarter inch short of six feet, and a little too lean. He had the slim artistic hands of a piano player or a surgeon. His ID photograph identified him as having a light brown complexion with kind blue eyes, relaxed mouth, a sprinkling of freckles on his nose, and medium-length brown hair. He appeared friendly, approachable, though the eyes seemed focused on a faraway object and suggested thoughtfulness, possibly remoteness—at odds with his outward appeal.
     By nine-thirty, the traffic in the gym had thinned. The swimmer in the pool was still going up and down, swallowing chlorine and frazzling her mind with repetition. A woman stepped off the treadmill to his left. He sensed her attention, but did not look about.
     Gym was a space he resented, from the swipe of the card and the phony welcome, to the stale bodies, mirrors, and mechanical clanking, damp people hoping to improve their physical appearance. Members toiled in claustrophobic sweat halls when they lived in a city of sunshine and fresh air, a mountain to climb five minutes from the city center. But gym was a safe place. That made sense to him. It provided a sense of belonging, of being in the company of others without having to maintain friendships. He had read that on someone’s blog.
     Maintaining his stride and balance, he toweled his face again and allowed his eyes to navigate the outer perimeter of the space, noting with satisfaction that the cameras he had installed before the gym opened were invisible.
     An elderly man mounted the treadmill alongside. His personal trainer, in a black tracksuit, sauntered around the front of the machine and slouched against the railing. The trainer was built like a railway sleeper, short blonde hair, a ruddy complexion and arrogant jaw. His name tag said Kevin. He pulled on the zipper of his tracksuit top. Up and down. Zzzp. Zzzp.
     “It’s not the same here as Claremont, do you agree?” the client said.
     “Yeah,” said Kevin. Zzzp. “It’s a different vibe here, for sure.” He wore a flash watch, sleeves pushed to the elbow.
     “How long do you think before the new gym opens, Kevin?”
     “Who knows?” He pulled the zipper to his neck, wiggled it up and down in short jerky motions. Zzzp.
     “Oh, before I forget, here’s your money.” The client handed over a wad of folded notes, a fifty rand note on the outside.
     “Thanks. Hey, that reminds me, Mr. P. Last week, I didn’t check the cash you gave me, but it was only a hundred bucks.”
     “What’s that, Kevin?”
     Kevin laughed. “It’s not a problem, Mr. P. You only gave me a hundred bucks last week. I didn’t count it until I got home.” He held out the cash Mr. P had given him a few moments earlier. “You see it had a fifty on the outside like this, but inside there were only two twenties and a ten. The fifty rand note around them and two twenties and a ten.”
     Kevin laughed again and pocketed the cash. Zzzp. He glanced over his shoulder then back at his client. “Don’t worry. I wanted to let you know. It probably dropped out somewhere. It was a hundred bucks instead of the usual three hundred. But it doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it.”
     Le Fleur listened to their conversation, his right hand hovering over the speed lever.
     “Oh no, I’m so sorry. We can’t have that. I’ll put it right, Kevin. For sure, I’ll straighten it up.”
     “Not to worry, Mr. P. I wanted you to know, that’s all.”
     “No. I’ll sort you out for sure.”
     Le Fleur rammed the stop button and wiped his perspiration from the treadmill. Kevin looked across at him. Zzzp. Le Fleur hopped off the treadmill and reached into his tog bag, opened his wallet, removed two hundred rand notes. “Here … take this.”
     Mr. P lost his rhythm on the treadmill, one foot sliding onto the edge. Le Fleur grabbed his elbow and steadied him.
     Kevin frowned, his eyes narrowed, hands off the zipper at his sides.
     “Here’s your money. You played the same trick on your last client. A Mr. C, I think—”
     Kevin reddened.
     “I’m sorry, what did you say?” said the old man.
     “Don’t worry about him, Mr. P, this guy is cooked.” Kevin twirled his finger around his ear.
     Le Fleur dropped the cash at Kevin’s feet, picked up his bag and walked away, reached the door of the change room.
     A hand gripped his shoulder.
     The trainer came from behind and spun him around, gripped his right wrist. “What’s your fucking problem?”
     Le Fleur blinked. He did not like being involved. Not in anything. Then sometimes he suffered an inexplicable urge to bypass reason and plunge headlong into trouble. “You should steer clear of the petty stuff, Kevin. These old guys are on a fixed income. They can’t afford your bullshit.”
     “What?”
     “Let me go.”
     The trainer backed him into the change room. The swing door closed behind them.
     “Or what?” Kevin’s face contorted, veins throbbed in his neck.
     “What about the cameras?”
     The cameras he had installed backed up to a server farm in Gardens. Le Fleur could even tell him the IP address, an unwanted hangover from the days when he collected those unique strings of numbers like medallions.
     “There’re no fucking cameras here, pal. It’s just you and me. Do you want me to break your other arm?” Kevin ran his eyes across three pale blue crosses tattooed on the underside of Le Fleur’s right wrist. He released him and smiled. “You’ve picked on the wrong guy, buddy. If I see you again, I’m going to tattoo my name on your forehead with a screwdriver.”
     Kevin turned and stalked off. Le Fleur watched him. He doubted there would be a next time. He was going to make damn sure of that.

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