Aay my pipo, what kinda trouble dis now? Vee thought.
The person on the floor was unmistakeably dead. It looked like a woman; she couldn’t be sure yet. The barely-there ‘dead smell’ punched a greeting up her nostrils right in the doorway, forcing her to make an about-face as she fought her gag reflex. It was nowhere near an exact science, but all it took was a whiff of that imperceptibly rank odour and she had enough to make a strong guestimate. Fresh: half a day, maybe a few hours on that, but not much longer. She couldn’t explain how she knew exactly but she did. The wondrously incalculable side effects of war… her mind could be tricked into forgetting, but her hyper-excitable nose was rewired for eternal stubbornness.
“Whose room is this?” she asked.
“Ms Greenwood. Rhonda Greenwood. She’s the deputy manager,” said the girl from housekeeping. She’d run smack into Vee, screaming blue murder and begging for help. The maid, who’d whispered the name Zintle, stayed wedged in the doorway linking the small lounge to the bedroom, intent on not moving an inch closer to the action. Mouth-breathing as much as possible, Vee knelt over the body. Rhonda’s cheeks and nose sported a dull, ruddy hue. She examined the bruising behind her ear, near the back of her head, and shuddered.
“How long she been lying here?”
Met with silence, Vee turned. Zintle looked horribly affronted, as if stupid was anyone who thought a dead person sprawled in a room under her charge was something she’d keep quiet for any length of time. “No, I mean how often are these rooms cleaned? When last did anybody see her? Last night?”
Zintle nodded. “Yes. Most of the managers work late, especially now when it’s busy. But sometimes…she comes to bed early. But not too many times. She works hard.”
Vee studied her, eyes narrowing when Zintle aimed a guilty look at the wall.
She turned back to the body. She licked her finger and brought it close to the woman’s nose. No breath. Greenwood was definitely dead. She patted the pockets of her cargo pants for her phone. The screen registered four missed calls. She cursed quietly, pressed ‘exit’ and switched to camera mode.
“She’s staying here by herself?” She held her breath and snapped the first couple, one close-up and one wide-shot, of the body propped on its side against the lower bedframe.
“Yes. All the senior guys have rooms but their partners don’t stay here with them. It’s not allowed. I mean, they stay the night sometimes but not usually. Especially not during peak season.”
“Hhmm.” Vee snapped another close-up of Greenwood’s face, lungs starting to ache as she leaned close to get the blotchy nose and raw lump behind her ear in the frame. Behind her, she heard Zintle’s gasp at her audacity. Trust me, I don’t want to be doing this either. Then why was she? She clicked on, capturing the protruding tongue and thick foam in and around the woman’s mouth. When she finally had to inhale, the strong, gassy hit of booze made her gag.
“So you’re telling me all the senior staff here got their own chalets?”
“No, no. They can have a room now and then if they want it, especially if they work late. It’s like that in the business.” The sound of Zintle’s voice had shifted from the doorway to what sounded like a spot directly behind her. “Only Ms Greenwood and Ms Motaung, the general manager, have chalets. They practically live here.” Over the click of the phone’s electronic shutter, Vee heard a dull clink and thunk on the floor behind her, much like the sound of glass against wood.
“They aren’t married. I doubt they even have men,” Zintle said.
Vee ignored the disapproving tone, staring at the body with sympathy. Don’t mind her yaah, she’s young and naïve, she thought. She had enough experience with age to know when you got to Rhonda’s, likely twice what Zintle was, you weren’t thrilled about blossoming into an overweight, unmarried, workaholic lush. Bet you never imagined ending up here either, Vee mused as she photographed the swipe of lumpy vomit on the carpet.
“Did you see her last night, before you went home?”
“I’m not doing nights this week. I went home at eight, when the new shift starts. There’s a bus that takes us into Oudtshoorn but it was running behind so I got a lift.”
Vee frowned, peering in at Greenwood’s hands. Shaking her head, she squatted, zoomed, snapped, and examined the shot at length. Something was off about the fingernails… Puzzled by the sudden silence, she lowered the cell and peeped over the expanse of queen-sized mattress into the adjoining bathroom, in time to see Zintle working the neck of a bulging black garbage bag into a knot. At the sound of gurgling, Vee popped to her feet and dashed over.
“Nawww,” she groaned as water swirled down the bathtub’s drain.
“Yintoni? What?” Zintle looked panicky. “I only let the water out. I shouldn’t do that?”
“No, I don’t think you’re supposed to do that. Maybe there was evidence in it.”
Zintle’s apprehension switched to disgusted disbelief. “Ngumphambano lowo,” she said, then blinked, as if suddenly remembering Vee didn’t speak Xhosa. “That’s crazy. Like what, urine?”
Vee giggled into her hand. Zintle cracked a smile. “Yeah, maybe urine. I don’t know.” She gave Zintle a comforting pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure it doesn’t matter.”
Nonetheless she captured all angles of the bathroom and flicked through her efforts, Zintle craning her neck over her shoulder. When she reached the end, Zintle wrinkled her forehead and made a mouth-shrug. The gesture pretty much summed up the entire gallery: meaningless. Vee started to put the phone away.
“Must everything be correct?” Zintle asked. At Vee’s quizzical frown, she continued: “Do you want photos of the room exactly how it was? Before I found her?”
“Yes, but… you moved anything?”
“Lo glass.” Zintle pointed to a wine glass on a side table in the bedroom. “Lo glass ibime pha ngase’bhafini.” She clicked in irritation and repeated, “That glass was by the bathtub.” Her face clouded. “Ndiyicholile. I touched it. I picked it up with my fingers.”
Vee chewed her lip. Finally she said, “Okay, bring it back where it was. It’s fine, you can hold it,” she cajoled. “Long as you’re the only person who touched it.” Nothing suspicious about a maid’s fingerprints all over a room she regularly cleaned. That’s if anyone cared to check, like the police. If this was a police matter at all, come to think of it.
Her face was round, almost unnaturally spherical, and crowned with fine, artificially lightened hair, teased – tortured really – into a bun on top of her head. Her smile could’ve fracked the entire Karoo for free.
Pinching it by the stem, Zintle set the glass on the peach-and-cream tiles at the foot of the tub, twisting and turning it around several times. Finally satisfied it was in place, she nodded gravely at Vee, who aimed and snapped.
“That all? Did you move anything else?”
Zintle’s immediate, involuntary nod faltered fast into a shake of the head. Vee narrowed her eyes. Avoiding her gaze, the maid quickly stuffed both lips into her mouth and covered it with a hand, head shaking in emphatic denial.
Then Vee recalled how she’d met Rhonda Greenwood, alive and well, a mere day ago.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
She had turned and looked down, quite a ways, into the bright brown irises of a plump woman, clipboard tamped against her chest by a pair of well-manicured hands. Her face was round, almost unnaturally spherical, and crowned with fine, artificially lightened hair, teased – tortured really – into a bun on top of her head. Her smile could’ve fracked the entire Karoo for free.
Vee smiled back politely. She and Chlöe were fresh off the N1 highway, barely unpacked and sorely disappointed to find they weren’t guests at the main lodge. Boot camp inmates reported at check-in to pick up ‘the drill’, a list of gruelling weekend activities they were expected to jump right into once their bags hit the floor. As she lounged expectantly outside the office, she noticed the woman had looked her over once or twice before speaking up. Her approach was so certain and friendly, Vee twinged for not recalling who she was.
“Hang on a minute…” The woman’s face blanked out, her head taking up a curious bobbing motion, akin to a beach ball on a gentle tide.
“Ummm…” Vee interjected, concern budding after several moments.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “Johnson,” she chirped. “First name was a letter in the alphabet. Bee. Bea for Beatrice? No. Vee. Vee Johnson. You’re a journalist.” Her smile turned on full blast. Her head kept bobbing. “Didn’t comprehend our colonially obsessive tea-drinking, shortbread meant something entirely different in your country. Hated PowerPoint presentations with needless animations. And loved the ocean. Loved it, loved it.”
Vee blinked. “Whoa.”
The nodding and jaw-breaking beam kept going. “People get such a jolt when I do that, but who wouldn’t love that reaction.” Her laugh was tinkly yet full and broad-spirited, much like herself. “I did this course a few years ago, you know, the ones that improve your memory by tapping into alpha waves to increase how much of your brain you use. I know,” she held up a hand, “sounds like utter rubbish but it actually worked. Well, for the most part anyway. When you’re in hospitality you can’t afford to forget names and faces.”
Vee extended her hand with a polite smile, provoking the woman to bright, open laughter as she shook it. “Oh, of course I’m being silly, you don’t know who I am! Rhonda Greenwood, deputy general manager. I know you from that thing last year…”
Please don’t say the Paulsen trial, Vee thought.
“…the conference centre at Portswood. The Portswood Hotel at the V&A Waterfront. You were there for some journalism training group as was I, well for a management refresher in my case. A couple of our tea breaks coincided and that’s when we chatted. About shortbread, the silliest of things.”
“Oh yeees!” Vee sighed into a grin. “That was ages ago, early last year. You gave me your grandmother’s recipe for genuine Scottish shortbread, and I gave you my mother’s one for Liberian shortbread.”
Up and down bobbed Rhonda’s head, in agreement, and also because it now appeared to be a tic she had no control over. “Which is more like a muffin isn’t it, and truly scrumptious. How long are you staying with us?”
Vee blinked her way back into the room, the memory of an effervescent Greenwood fading as she looked down at the crumple of human being near her feet. This woman had died with two – possibly more, who knew – great shortbread recipes in her head. This woman, whose alpha-enhanced brain was rotting away along with her everything else, was giving off more and more of That Dead Smell with every passing minute. She gagged, rushing for the door.
“What do we tell the police?” Zintle pressed, scurrying her short, plump legs to keep up. Refreshed by clean air, Vee stopped outside back entrance of the lodge’s kitchen and shielded her eyes against the sun, face stern.
“Zintle, you can’t tell the police I was in there with you. Please, okay, no…you really can’t.” Zintle folded her arms. “It won’t be good for me, it won’t be good for you either. I’m a guest. They’ll ask why you told me about it.” And there’s the small matter of those pictures I took.
“But I needed help. You were the only person around.”
“They won’t see it that way.” Vee squeezed Zintle’s arm. “I beg you, don’t. Tell your housekeeping manager or whoever that you just found her, which is true. And if they ask you about moving things, be truthful. You won’t get into any trouble.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back.” Vee pointed in the direction of the wall and made a swooping motion with her hands.
Zintle put her fists on her hips. “You jumped from the other side, the bootcamp? Yoh, sisi, are you mad? You guys aren’t supposed to come to the lodge.” She paused for a moment, then motioned Vee to wait before heading into the kitchen. She came back a few minutes later with two frosty, unopened soft drinks and sandwiches wrapped in foil. “There’s a party tonight because the conference is ending. There’s a lot of food. They won’t notice.” She smiled as she handed them over. “Thank you.”
“And bless you,” Vee breathed in gratitude.