In the old days, newspapers would often publish serial fiction, such as Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and many other works.
As an experiment, I've been writing my own serial called The Butcher's Shadow. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how the public at a site like News24 responds to serial fiction at what is a news site - a nod to the old days, as it were.
I realise this isn't the usual thing - but what if people like the idea? It might open up new avenues for readers and writers. It did in the old days, why not today? There's no printing costs, so it's an experiment that doesn't require much investment (save some time to write, and time to read!)
The Butcher's Shadow is a paranormal murder mystery set in a near-future Johannesburg. When detective David "Shakes" Khumalo signs up for the "Spectre Division", he finds out what ghosts actually are and they're not the dead coming back from the grave. But when he starts feeling as if he is being haunted by a serial killer, he isn't sure if a real ghost is hunting him down or if a real murderer is playing with his mind.
Here's the first chapter. Let me know what you think of the idea and, of course, the story!
Chapter 1: Cold Hands
David "Shakes" Khumalo had to sick up. So he did, right there on the dusty township road, to surprised gasps from onlookers and some of his colleagues close by.
“What... what... I can't,” he stuttered. He looked up, finding himself staring right into the glaring African brown eyes of Captain Tandi Ndlovu. Her eyebrows were practically at the back of her plump head.
“Man up, Shakes. You knew what you were in for.”
“I didn't expect THAT,” Shakes replied. He still felt cold and distant - as if this wasn't really happening to him. He looked away, hoping Ndlovu wouldn't see the expression on his face as he fought off the nausea.
The Captain clucked her tongue and shifted her glare to the onlookers.
“Imraan! Tebogo! Get these people out of here!” she shouted. Two sheepish officers were on the scene immediately, shoving the people away. But there were honestly just too many of them.
“You're making a scene," Tandi whispered, her always-angry eyes staring Shakes down. She clucked her tongue again and walked away.
Shakes sat down on the nearby porch, shaven head still in his hands. Suddenly, he was staring at a pack of cigarettes shoved in his face.
“Maybe you could do with one,” said a white man with a thick, tobacco-stained gray moustache. Doctor Hendri de Villiers.
“I don’t smoke,” said Shakes.
Shakes grabbed the cigarette sticking out the pack and lit up.
“Don't worry Shakes. Most of us responded the same as you. Well, except for her.” He pointed to the Captain. “But I bet she was an altogether different creature when she went home, when no one was looking."
"And I know for a fact she's never been the same since she got involved. Ask anyone who's worked with her.”
Shakes couldn't decide if the cigarette was making him feel less or more sick. But he kept puffing away just the same. That taste of tobacco and vomit. Not a nice combination. But the nicotine should kick in soon...
“I just didn't expect that," he said. "She says I knew what I was getting myself into. No, I didn't. I didn't expect that."
"Of course you didn't."
"Is that... is that real? All of that?"
De Villiers nodded. "It shows you what was real and what is real."
"I've seen murder scenes for most of my professional career, Hendri. But this... well, I've never had to witness a murder! But not only that, but with all that... what was that, exactly? It's like I was watching an old horror movie - with some wild, killer ghost!"
“A ghost, eh? Well, yes, that's what it looks like. But we don't call it that."
“Well... I guess... well, what do we call it?”
“Spectres. It's more scientific. That's why we're aptly named the Spectre Division. Not that original but still a nice ring.”
“Ok,” Shakes said thinly. “But even so... why, when that happened, did I feel... so...”
“Frightened? Well, that's natural. You've got to get your mind around it Shakes, and quickly, otherwise you'll start thinking all sorts of things. It's simply because we're tapping into some pretty wild natural forces, a deep magnetism, something new and yet ancient. These forces have a way of playing with our mind, working on a kinetic level. I'm not too clued up on the science, of course, it's not my field - but I'm clued up on the psychology. That's my field.”
He tapped Shakes gently on his sweaty, brown head.
“It's all in there. It's just chemicals reacting to the surroundings - like when it gets hot, you sweat. Seeing is not always believing. Sometimes you've got to believe first to understand what you're seeing. You just need to get used to it.”
Shakes nodded slowly, but de Villiers noticed his still-glazed look.
“So, tell me what you saw,” de Villiers went on. “From a case perspective. Any clues?”
Shakes continued to stare blankly, taking an absent-minded drag from the cigarette.
“You've got to think about it all now,” de Villiers said. “You can’t wait for tomorrow. It’s best to explain it now, in the moment you've experienced it. It's all fresh, so now's the best time.”
“Well, uh... ok.” He took a deep breath. “Well... first the scene. It's a low income area - RDP housing - densely populated. I arrived in my car, saw a few of the locals peering and murmuring to each other, looking on. A few of our heavies were preventing them from getting any closer. I asked Imraan there if they knew what was going on, he says no one seems to have a clue, and that after asking them a few questions no one saw anyone else go in or leave the house. Only... her.”
“Yes. Naledi.” The victim's name.
“I grabbed my coat. Bloody cold July,” Shakes said. “Nothing compared to... that cold, inside.”
De Villiers snickered. "And here you are, sweating like it's the middle of summer."
Shakes wiped his brow and swore. "You're right. You should have seen me in there, I was so nervous... why was I nervous?”
“Stick to the case, Shakes, don't worry too much about your feelings.”
“Ok." He took another drag from the cigarette. "So you came out, told me the scene – strangulation, very neatly done. The killer didn't bother hiding the body, seemed as if he wanted it found. Forensics had done their thing and we could get going.”
“Well, that was the scene, exactly how you described it. You handed me a cup of coffee...”
“Which you dropped on the floor once we got started,” de Villiers said.
“Back to the case, big guy.”
“Well, everyone put on their coats; put their gloves on; I was told to do the same. So I did. Then the lights went off.”
“Well...” Shakes was wearing a permanent frown, forcing the words out. “My stomach sank... I could feel... a prickling at the back of my neck. The Captain was breathing really fast. I think.”
“You rested yourself on the side of the shack... I think. Everyone was silent, just breathing hard. I just heard breathing.”
“Yes. Try stick to the case, Shakes," de Villiers said.
“It was cold. Incredibly cold. I mean, it's a cold July, but this was unnatural. It was so sudden. I couldn't understand why – there was suddenly condensation coming out of my mouth. It was like it snowed in there.”
De Villiers nodded.
“Then I felt a dreaded feeling... I thought all that was nonsense. But I feel it. Something else is here. It's like some dark... presence. And it wants me, it's going to swallow me whole...” He needed to get out, he needed to get out from there. What was this?
“Shakes, stick to the...”
“I'm trying to think straight, rationally, like I do. I'm a rational person, Hendri - I'm a straight thinker. But my lips... my teeth... quivering! There's something here, something completely different, I... I'm going to die. It's behind me! What! It's watching me... it's going to strike me... It's..."
“Damnit Shakes! Stick to the case! The facts!”
He shook his head.
“Sorry, Hendri. I'm sorry.” He took a few breaths. “Ok, so there was a flash. I realised someone took a picture... one of the cameras no doubt. Then a voice. It's so strange, it didn't echo, it wasn't natural. It was like it was somewhere else, it wasn't really there. A girl's voice.”
“Naledi,” de Villiers said. "It was hers."
“Yes.” The dead woman spoke. She had been speaking in her African language. It had sounded as if she was speaking to a lover or, rather, arguing with her lover. It was all so eerie, as if there was this ghost on a cell phone, standing in front of them, standing on top of its own dead body lying on the floor. A disembodied spirit. On a bloody cell phone!
“Can you remember what she said?” de Villiers asked.
“I can't remember the details.”
“Fortunately, it's recorded, so we can go over it later. But you'll have to learn quickly to put your feelings aside. She said she was scared, Shakes, as if someone was watching her. She seemed to be arguing with her boyfriend, saying that it didn't make sense why she couldn't come see him, and why he wanted her to be home all of a sudden."
“Ok,” Shakes said. “Well... I heard a whisper then. That was the killer? I couldn't hear the whisper, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I just wanted to get out of there!”
De Villiers nodded. “The whisper was very soft, not enough for us to use it in any meaningful way. But I got the impression that, well, he was almost talking to himself; talking about how he was looking forward to this murder."
Shakes' eyes widened. “He was there, almost suddenly, just a few steps behind her.”
“Describe him, Shakes.”
“It's difficult... it seems to play back in flashes.”
Shakes tried to remember that ghastly, ghostly face. It was grinning as it approached her. The vision, the scene as it was playing out, blinked on and off, on and off, like an old film projector. That was how it worked. They - the people - seemed so real the one moment, and in the next they were gone.
She froze. “She... she seemed to almost know he was there, but not know for sure. Like she could sense him. Damnit, I could sense him!”
“He wasn't there when you were watching Shakes. You have to remember that. First tell me what he looked like.”
That smirk. A flash, he's gone. A flash, he's back. He was almost upon her.
“Long hair. About to the shoulders. Seemed to be a white guy to me.”
“Caucasian,” de Villiers said. Shakes glanced at him. “Try and use terms you would normally use in a murder case, Shakes. To help you realise what this is: a murder scene, and you are a detective. You're a professional.”
“So it helps to keep speaking professionally, to keep you in the right frame of mind.”
“Ok. So he must have been Caucasian.”
“IS a Caucasian. He's still alive Shakes. There's only one dead person here and that is that poor woman. He is still alive. And we're going to get him. Keep that in mind.”
Shakes nodded. “I see your point.”
“Now for the hard part,” de Villiers said. “Did you pick up any clues when he started strangling her?”
He was upon her - you could see the rope in his hand now. He was so quick! It was around her neck in a split second. She couldn't even scream.“You speak as if this is some sort of business deal – like we were watching a movie!" He continued to strangle her, grinning all the time, as calm as a man sitting watching T.V. "There's a dead woman in there, Hendri! We watched her die!”
De Villiers glared at Shakes. “I am aware of that, and so are we all,” he said softly. “But we have to think like detectives here Shakes. We can get this guy, that's why we're doing what we're doing. We can get him now easier than ever. But it takes a sacrifice on our part. Detective work always requires a sacrifice.”
Shakes closed his eyes and sighed. “He had a small rope in his hands, and it seemed that he managed to get it around her throat very quickly. She never even had time to react. He just carried on, enjoying it, I think. For goodness sake, Hendri, do we really have to witness that? Play it back in our minds like this? Seeing a dead woman is one thing but watching her being strangled? It's like a snuff movie! It's not right!”
De Villiers sighed. “In the morning it will all make sense. But yes, we don't need to go into more detail. What we do know is that the strangulation was quite long, and that says something about the killer, doesn't it?”
Shakes nodded slowly. “It plays back in flashes, but by then my mind was racing and I needed to get out.”
“That's when you did get out,” De Villiers said. “I'll tell you the rest. It was a pretty long murder, it seemed as if he was playing with her, sometimes giving her just enough air and then closing in again. It was a slow painful struggle and then that was it. His eyes – what we could see of them – were wide with excitement Shakes. He loved it. He's definitely the guy we've been chasing. This is his third in the last year and a bit.”
“We have his face," Shakes said. “This is what all this technology is supposed to do - give us their identity. Why can't we catch him easily?”
“Ah, it seems your mind is getting back to where it should be now,” de Villiers said. “We'll catch up with you in the morning on those details. But if you're going to do any thinking between then and now, think about his psyche, Shakes. That's what you're good at.”
“Ok,” Shakes replied at length.
“I'm not sure one could ever get used to it,” de Villiers said gently. “Two years now. But it's had such a good impact, not only here but even in America and England and China and around the world.”
Shakes huffed, taking a final drag from his cigarette, throwing it on the floor and tramping on it. “When I used to dream of being a detective when I was a kid, I never dreamed of this.” He paused a moment. “But here we are.”
De Villiers chuckled. “Yes. Here we are.”