with a shake of her head and said, ‘My brother’s name was Jacobus Daniel le Roux …’

She said he disappeared in 1986. Her sentences were less fluent now, her narrative cursory, as if the details were a fountain from which she dared not drink. She had been fourteen at the time; Jacobus had been twenty. He was some kind of temporary game ranger, one of a few soldiers on compulsory military service who volunteered to help the Parks Board in the battle against elephant poaching in the Kruger Park. And then he just disappeared. Later they found signs of a skirmish with ivory poachers, cartridge casings and blood and the remains of the campsite the poachers had left behind in their haste. They searched and tracked for two weeks, until the only meaningful conclusion was reached: Jacobus and his black assistant had been killed in the confrontation, and the poachers had taken their bodies with them out of fear for the reaction they would cause.

‘It’s been more than twenty years, Mr Lemmer … It’s a long time, you see. That’s what makes all this so difficult… Anyway, last week, on the twenty-second, something happened that I haven’t mentioned to the police …’

That Saturday evening, just past seven, she had been in the second bedroom of her house. She had fitted it out as an office with a built-in desk, filing cabinets and bookshelves. There was a television set and a stationary exercise bicycle and a felt notice-board with a few happy social photos plus sober newspaper clippings from the business pages affirming her success as a brand consultant. Emma was busy on her laptop, examining spread- sheets of statistics that required concentration. She was vaguely aware of the TV news headlines, which brought on only a feeling of deja vu. President Mbeki and the members of his alliance were at loggerheads, a suicide bomb in Baghdad, African leaders complaining about G8 conditions for debt relief.

Later she could not recall what it was that made her look up. Perhaps she had just finished a graph and needed to shift her focus for a moment, perhaps it was pure coincidence. Once her attention was fixed on the TV screen, it was only seconds before a photograph appeared. She heard the newsreader say, ‘… involved in a shooting incident at Khokovela near the Kruger National Park in which a traditional healer and three local men died. The remains of fourteen protected and endangered vultures were found at the scene.’

The photograph appeared in black and white. A white man in his early forties stared deadpan at the camera, as people do when ID photographs are taken.

He looks like Jacobus would have. It was her abrupt, instinctive thought, purely an observation, and a touch of … nostalgia, almost.

‘The Limpopo police are searching for a Mr Jacobus de Villiers, also known as Cobus, an employee of an animal hospital at Klaserie, to help them with their enquiries. Anyone with information can contact the police station at Hoedspruit …’

She shook her head. She grimaced. Coincidence.

The newsreader moved on to commodity prices and she returned her attention to the computer screen and the large amount of work awaiting her. She drew the pointer over a block of data. She selected the graph icon.

What would Jacobus have looked like at… forty, would he have been forty this year? Her memories of his features were based mostly on the photographs in her parents’ home; her own recollection was less reliable. But she did remember her brother’s incredible intensity, his spirit, and his overwhelming personality.

She turned the graph into multicoloured towers of data meant to bring insight about sales trends in relation to the competition.

Coincidence. Strange that the TV photo man should also be called Jacobus.

She selected more blocks of data.

Jacobus was not such a common name.

She needed to make a pie graph of this, with wedges of market share to demonstrate that her client’s salad dressing was the slow horse, last across the line. The problem was hers to solve.

The remains of fourteen protected and endangered vultures were found at the scene.

That would have upset Jacobus.

She made an error compiling the graph and clicked her tongue at herself. Coincidence, pure chance. If you absorbed a thousand pieces of information every day for twenty years, it would happen at least once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. The numbers would conspire to tease you with possibilities.

She suppressed this vein of thought for nearly two hours, until she had processed all the data. She checked for new emails and turned off her computer. She fetched a clean towel from the linen cupboard and climbed on the exercise bicycle, cell phone in hand. She read SMS’s, listened to her messages. She pedalled systematically harder, watched the television absent minded, channel-surfing with the remote.

She wondered how much like Jacobus the photo really was. She wondered about her ability to recognise him. Imagine if he hadn’t died and walked in here now? What would her father have said about that news item? What work would Jacobus be doing if he were alive? How would he have responded when faced with fourteen dead rare vultures?

More than once she forced her thoughts away to other things, plans for tomorrow, preparations for a few days at Hermanus for Christmas, but Jacobus came back to haunt her again and again. Just minutes after ten o’clock, she dug into one of her cupboards and brought out two albums. Swiftly flipping through one, not dwelling on the pictures of her parents, or the happy family groups. She was looking for a particular photograph of Jacobus wearing his bush hat.

She removed it, put it aside and studied it.

Memories. It took considerable willpower to suppress them. Did he look like the man on TV?

Suddenly she was sure. She took the photo to her study and dialled enquiries to get the number of the police station in Hoed-spruit. She looked at the photo again. Doubt crept back. She called the Lowveld number. She just wanted to ask whether they were sure it was Jacobus de Villiers and not Jacobus le Roux. That was all. Just so she could get this idea out of her head and enjoy Christmas without the frustration of longing for her deceased family, all of them, Pa and Ma and Jacobus.

Eventually, she spoke to an inspector. She apologised. She had no information, didn’t mean to waste his time. The man on TV looked like someone she knew, also called Jacobus. Jacobus le Roux. She stopped then, so he could react.

‘No,’ said the inspector with the exaggerated patience of someone who handles a lot of weird phone calls. ‘He is De Villiers.’

‘I know he is De Villiers now, but his name might have once been Le Roux.’

The patience diminished. ‘How can that be? He’s been here all his life. Everybody knows him.’

She apologised and thanked him and ended the call. At least now she knew.

She went to sleep with the longing unstilled, as though her losses had been renewed after all these years.

‘And then, yesterday afternoon, I was standing outside with the man who was replacing my front door. The sergeant, the policeman, had found someone from Hanover Park, a carpenter. I heard the phone ring in the study. When I picked it up there was static on the line, I couldn’t hear very well, I thought he said “Miss Emma?” It sounded like a black man. When I said “yes”, he said something that sounded like “Jacobus”. I said I couldn’t hear him. Then he said “Jacobus says you must…” and I said I couldn’t hear, but he didn’t repeat it. I asked “Who is this?” but the line went dead …’

For a moment she drifted off in her thoughts, her focus far away, then she came back, turned her head to look at me and said, ‘I’m not even sure that’s what he said. The call was so short.’ She was speaking more rapidly, as if she were in a rush to finish. ‘I drove over here last night. When Carel heard the story …’

She left it at that. She wanted a response from me, an indication that I understood, an assurance that I would protect her from everything. This was her moment of buyer’s remorse, like someone who has bought a new car and reads the advertisement again. I am familiar with it, this moment when you commit yourself to the unwritten part of the contract that says ‘I accept unconditionally’.

I nodded my head sagely and said, ‘I understand. I’m sorry …’ and made a semicircle with my hands to show that I included everything – her loss, her pain, her dilemma.

There was a short silence between us, the agreement sealed. She expected action now, some sort of guidance.

‘The first thing I must do is inspect the house, inside and out.’

‘Ah, of course,’ she said, and we rose.

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