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PETER J. MORRIS
practise

The sign on the fence read: PROPERTY OF CROWN MINES - GEEN TOEGANG/NO ENTRY. A man in an overcoat and balaclava waved them through the gate onto a dirt road that led into a compound of abandoned buildings. Jao did not look at Agostino. He had felt the surprise in his friend at Cabassa's invitation. He fiddled with the plastic box on his lap gathering his thoughts towards his party trick, doubting if he would be able to repeat it. He harboured no illusions about the outcome should he fail.

They stopped outside a concrete bunker next to the headgear of a disused mineshaft. Agostino and Jao followed Cabassa through a steel door, leaving Muis in the car. The bunker dripped water. The floor was covered with rotting mattresses, on one side a long iron table overflowing with spent cartridges; on the other, fifty meters away, three metal plates standing against a wall of sandbags, on each a crude rendition of a man smiling through peppered teeth.

Cabassa grunted. Jao took his cue and swept the cartridges off, placed the box on the table. Agostino broke a box of rounds on the edge of the table and filled the first clip. "The old PM took eight rounds, this one takes twelve. But it's not so much the amount of bullets you can throw out. This is a better weapon in every respect". Jao watched and filled the remaining clips. Agostino completed the loading, pulling the first shot into the chamber, turning to Cabassa.

"Is it okay if I check the setting before he shoots?"

The tiniest of smiles curled from Cabassa's lip. "Do it later. I want to see what he can do."

Agostino did not react. He flicked the safety off and laid the Makarov gently in Jao's hand. Jao felt a surge at the weight of it, primed with its cargo, ready to serve its new master. His fears flowed into his hand, picking up the weapon's powerful emanations. Once again he could not fail to register the fit.

"Try not to hold your breath - breath easily," Agostino said.

Jao took a step back from the table, bringing the pistol up in a slow arc, getting used to the solidity of the metal. He had seen this done before, in countless films in downtown Joburg. Following their lead he brought his left hand up, cradling the pistol in his palm. He parted his legs slightly, judged the middle target and pulled.

The sound was louder and the muzzle-flash brighter than he remembered, cracking the stillness open, jabbing the pistol up into the air. It woke him with a jolt. A piece of concrete broke off from the rotten ceiling and fell onto a mattress.

Cabassa snorted derisively.

Agostino's mouth opened to comment but no sound came out. Jao regained his composure and raised the weapon again. He shot off two more, one after the other, the second one hitting the metal target with a dull clang.

Agostino swallowed. "Leg. The kick isn't too bad compared to the .45. You'll get used to it."

Jao was already beginning to get the measure of the weapons potential. He let his arm drop, releasing his shoulders, willing himself to breath regularly. The shells were smokeless but he could smell the burnt powder as it wafted around him. It smelt good to him. It smelt right. In one movement he brought the pistol up again and emptied the clip in measured intervals at the target.

Only one other clang registered from the clip.

This time it was Cabassa who noted, "Head". He walked over to the table and held out his hand. Jao gave him the pistol. "You seem to like headshots Mucavinho and you stand well enough." He released the clip and replaced it with another one. "But your technique… I have to say … it stinks." He pulled back the slide bringing a fresh bullet into the chamber. "Even with the best kwash in Joburg all you'd do is frighten off some old ladies." He turned and shot straight into the chest of the middle target without flinching. "Agostino will tell you, Mucavinho, that our enemies aren't old ladies." A frown creased Agostino's face. His hand moved to his pocket. "They don't get frightened so easy, do they, Agostino?" With these last words Cabassa turned and faced Agostino, whose hand jumped like a frog out of his pocket. "No Mister Cabassa," he replied.

Both Jao and Agostino could feel the subject of the excursion floating to the surface. The possibility stifled the atmosphere.

"Now take these fellows who attacked you downtown. Very unfriendly. I doubt they would have stopped unless they thought you could take all of them without a problem." Cabassa extracted a handkerchief, wiping his forehead carefully before continuing. "You say, Agostino, that you never saw these people before?"

"That's right Mister Cabassa," Agostino replied, his face a mask.

Cabassa turned to Jao. "And you, Mucavinho? Had you never seen them before?"

Jao's head reeled. Cabassa had never spoken to him directly about the incident. An instinct told him he should be as emphatic as possible. "No, of course, Mister Cabassa. I could not even tell them if they stood in front of us now."

"That's because they were not from here," Cabassa said in the matter of fact manner he reserved for important information. "They were from Transkei. They were a hit squad sent up to Joburg to get rid of Agostino."

Jao sensed this was old news but he went along with it, unsure of why Cabassa would let it surface at such a late stage. "Transkei? But we are Mozambican. We don't know anybody from Transkei."

Agostino looked at his friend. His attitude, his expression, betrayed nothing.

"That is what I'm asking myself," Cabassa continued. "Why such a Mozambican as Agostino would be attacked by men from Transkei, when he is just a humble steakhouse cook who knows a little bit about how to put a kwash together and some other bits and pieces to do with the arts of war - all things thousands of our African brothers know about."

Agostino measured his words. "My skills aren't that special, but I will say it again, Mister Cabassa, I do not know why they would want to kill me."

Cabassa adopted a patronising tone. "Oh, but you underestimate yourself Agostino, you really do. I would say you are one of the better equipment men I have known in all my time in the south."

"Thank you Mister Cabassa," Agostino demurred, "but why are you asking these questions?"

"Well, I tell you this for free," Cabassa replied. "We found the location of these men who wanted to kill you. The problem is we could not find them on the day. Then something funny happened. That night, these three men arrived, dead at our doorstep at the back of the Quirinale, Agostino, at the door to your workshop. This was sometime on a Saturday morning early. We don't know who left them there. I think maybe they wanted the cops to see them and come looking for the workshop. The kids told us and we took them to another place."

Agostino's face remained calm. "That is very interesting. Do you know who put them there?"

Cabassa ignored the question, "Let me ask you Agostino, why would they be hunting you that night?"

Jao understood that Cabassa was playing with them. He had seen it countless times before. Whether his information was recent was impossible to say. He had come to know his boss's ways. Cabassa would not hesitate to lie and he would always wait for the exact time when his information would be at its most effective.

"Because they wanted to kill me or take me away, but again, I can't think why, except for the reasons you already have."

"I can't think why," Cabassa mimicked. He brought the Makarov up again, fired another into the target. The silence fell, tasting of metal.

Then he said it. "What about Ernestine Baloyi? What do you know about him?"

Jao fought with his face, felt the darkness in his stomach clenching. He had buried those words in the back of his mind, along with the memory of the needles, the pain and the white cop. He swallowed his spit.

Agostino's face was a picture in repose. "I'm sorry Mister Cabassa, who did you say?"

Cabassa didn't skip a beat. "You should know him. He's a Mozambican like yourselves".

"Mozambique is a big place," Agostino shot back.

"Sure, but not the North."

"The North's still pretty big, Mister Cabassa," Jao added, finding his words.

Cabassa looked at the pistol. "And what about Chioko? Chioko's a small place, very small. And Crooks Corner? That is even smaller."

The question could have been for either one of them, both natives of Chioko, although Jao could not remember ever having mentioned where he was from to Cabassa or the place he had crossed the border to anybody in the organisation. He could see the letters with the address and their name in his mind, words he could now read and understand.

Who gave you that name Jao. He should be here. Where is that paper now.

"He cannot be from Chioko, Mister Cabassa," Jao replied with a straight face, "We would know, wouldn't we Agostino?"

"That's righ," Agostino replied quicker than he should. There was a hint of dryness on the edge of his tongue.

Cabassa let the air ring with Agostino's remark. He had found enough answers for the moment. He relaxed, "That's what I've been told too - at least by some people. Joburg is a small place for you Mozambicans. If you hear anything be sure to let me know. You will do that, gents?"

Jao and Agostino mumbled their agreement hearing the warning as well as the question. Then something strange happened. Cabassa began coughing in shallow breaths that increased in intensity, long wet coughs that echoed through the bunker. He put the pistol on the table holding his side. Jao and Agostino stand in silence waiting for the fit to subside. It took at least two long minutes.

Finally Cabassa straightened up, wiping his mouth. "Okay, Agostino. I want you to show him how to do it properly, like you do it. Before we leave I want to see him hitting the enemy cleanly. Soon he'll have a job to do and if he makes a mistake he'll be visiting his ancestors". Pause. "Do you want to see your brother dead?"

"No Mister Cabassa," was the firm and honest reply.

"He's got the right idea - he just needs some school. We don't come out until you've finished every last one". With that Cabassa turned, walked three paces before stopping and turning around.

"Oh, one more thing. On that night when they came. Were any of you carrying a weapon?"

"No," Jao replied, happy to tell the truth.

"No Mister Cabassa," Agostino said, his face still a mask.