Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 20: Alina is Nervous

“Relax Alina,” I tried to calm her, “I’m on your side. I’m not sure if you noticed, but you were being followed.”

“No, I hadn’t noticed,” she replied. She shifted in her seat as she said it, however, and turned away to look out the window. I was instantly suspicious. I got the clear impression that she was trying to lie to me. I wasn’t sure quite what she was trying to hide, but at the least, I suspected that she knew that she was going to be met and followed. This put a new complexion on things.

Ahead, I could see Cpl Maseka’s car turning off into Edwin Swales VC Drive, heading towards Pinetown. Our plan was to lose anyone following us before we got to the original car rental agency in Pinetown, so Cpl Maseka turned off at Queensborough. We drove past on another road that ran parallel. There was a subsidiary rental agency there, and he pulled into their parking lot, jumped out, and handed the keys to the attendant. He then jumped over a low wall and into my car. The car that had chased him from the airport was stuck. It had to turn around into traffic and drive about two klicks back to get onto the road that we had used.

“Did they follow you on foot Cpl?” I asked Cpl Maseka.

“No Major,” he answered, a little out of breath, “I don’t think they know the roads here very well. They drove straight on when they saw me go over the wall.”

“Excellent. Thanks Corporal, good job.”

We drove in silence for a few minutes until we were back on the main road. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the Pinetown rental agency, and found the Sgt Major waiting for me. I got out of the car, handed the him my car-keys and bundled Alina into the Land Rover. Cpl Maseka got into the back and we pulled out. Total time spent: less than two minutes. I felt like the Ferrari Formula One Team doing a pit-stop.

As I pulled away, I was almost deafened by the effusive greetings between Daise and Alina. A quick glance at Alina showed a completely different person. It was as if those first few minutes of being re-united with Daise had stripped away her other concerns. As we drove, however, I could see her start to worry again. A few minutes into the journey, her cell-phone rang. She immediately looked guilty, and I could see she was trying to decide what to do; whether she should answer it or just pretend that it wasn’t ringing.

“Alina, pass me your phone please,” I requested politely. She just looked at me. “Now,” I added with a bit more emphasis. Cpl Maseka had picked up on the tension between us and I could see that he was watching Alina very carefully, leaning close to the front seats. I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror and cut my eyes towards Alina. He nodded slightly to show that he understood that he needed to watch her closely.

Alina was still dithering about her phone. “Daise, please pass me Alina’s phone.”

Daise reached into Alina’s bag, grabbed her phone, and handed it to me, giving Alina a puzzled look as she did so.

The phone stopped ringing just as I took it, so I pressed the green button to bring up the list of recent calls and saw that the first missed call was from ‘Dimitri’. I scrolled through the list and saw that there were three or four calls to-and-fro between Alina and this Dimitri, starting from when Alina had landed in Cape Town. I opened the back of Alina’s phone, removed the battery, and dropped it into the storage compartment between the seats.

“Alina,” I said woodenly, “I think you owe us an explanation. It can wait till we get home though.”

Alina just nodded. The expression on her face was guilt overlaid with defiance. Daise started in at her in Russian and I stopped her, telling her that I would prefer it if she kept it to English and waited ‘till we got back to the house. After that, there was silence in the car.

The journey through Giba Gorge seemed as if it had been unnecessary as I detected no tail, but I was still happy that I had made that more paranoid choice. Sgt Major Dhlamini called me just as we were arriving at the house to tell me that he had dropped his guys off on-foot and they would set up stopper-groups on the road leading to the house. He said he would prefer to stay away until we had a clearer idea of what was going on. I was happy with that. It was nice to know that I had backup waiting on-call if needed.

Once at the house, I got everyone to sit in the lounge area; I didn’t want to expose us more than necessary, and I thought being on the veranda was a huge potential risk.

I was watching Alina like a hawk, and as she sat down on the couch, I realised what had been bugging me about her; she was moving very stiffly. With a sudden flash of insight, I thought that I knew what had happened.

“Alina, stand up please,” I told her. She gave me a puzzled look as I walked over to stand in front of her. I looked at her for a few seconds as I considered.

“Ok, lift your arms up above your head,” I told her while I demonstrated what I meant. Daise was looking at me now as if I had turned into a monster. “Relax Daise, I think we will figure this out soon enough. Ok, Alina. Drop your arms. Who beat you up? Was it ‘Dimitri?”

“No-one beat me up. What are you talking about?’ Alina answered defiantly.

I sighed. “Alina, it’s obvious from the way you move that you are sore. Your arms are stiff; you are favouring your right side, I would say that your ribs have been hurt; every now-and-then when you forget to hide it you wince when you turn and I suspect that when you clean all that gunk off your face, we will see that there is either some bruising or other damage there. Do you want me to insist that you remove your shirt so I can see if there are bruises?”

“There aren’t any bruises.”

“Ok, that proves nothing though. There are many ways to beat someone without leaving any marks. What did they do, use Oranges in a bag?”

Alina gasped in surprise. Bulls-eye. “Ok Alina, I think the best thing is to get you into a hot bath to ease some of those pains, then we can have a long chat.”

Alina looked trapped. I watched while she shot darting looks around the room, as if she could somehow spot an escape route.

“Don’t bother trying to ‘escape’ from here Alina. You are going to have to trust us; we have your best interests at heart and we will sort this out.”

“Trust you,” Alina spat at me, “you are a man. I have learnt my lesson: never to trust any man.”

“I can understand that. I tell you what, you chat to Daise a bit while you are having your bath and see if she can’t help you to change your mind a bit. When you are finished, then we can start this conversation over from the beginning. Is that fair?”

Alina looked at Daise. Daise nodded to her encouragingly. She turned back to me, “I suppose.”

I watched as Daise led Alina up the stairs to the bathroom. Once they were gone, I gave the Sgt Major a call.

“Sgt Major, you can come in. It’s important for you to hear this. I think that we don’t have an immediate threat, but we need to explore our options.”

“I’ll be there in five mikes. Should I pull the stopper-groups?”

“Are they covert enough or will they attract attention?”

Sgt Major Dhlamini laughed out loud. “Anyone who notices the guys will think they are just your normal Tsoti’s hanging around the neighbourhood. You might pick up a bit of flack from the private security when the Nervous Nellies call it in though.”

I laughed in turn. “I’ll give the security company a call and tell them we are running a training exercise. They’ll be happy with that, we’ve done it often enough before.”

“That should work. See you.”

“Bye.” I smiled as I hung up. ‘No need to tell them that this one wasn’t a training exercise. What they don’t know can’t harm them,’ I thought to myself.

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