Cold water splashes on Thulani’s head. He gasps awake and orientates himself. He is now seated on a chair with his hands handcuffed behind him. He looks around the well-lit room and deducts from a few hints that although this room has been ransacked it is indeed his bedroom.
“Welkom back,” says the gorilla shaped man standing in front of him.
Thulani scans the man’s chest area for a nametag but there’s none. He looks up and sees that the man is also wearing a balaclava. This confirms what he’s heard before, that these men hide their identities so they can get away with anything.
“I suggest you call me Friend, because I’m your only friend right now.” The man drops on one knee so he can be level with Thulani’s head. “You’re Dulani Mshlangu, right?”
“Thulani Mahlangu,” Thulani corrects him.
“Shut up!” The voice behind him is accompanied by a leather gloved slap to the back of his head.
“Hey!” the big man points a leather-gloved finger above Thulani. “You don’t touch him unless I say so, verstaan?”
Thulani looks at the man’s boots and estimates they are probably size thirteen or larger. He then looks at the man’s masked face.
“What did I do wrong? I’m not the man you’re looking for. Why are you hurting me like this?” Thulani says.
“Listen, Dulani,” the man balances his large hands on Thulani’s knees and leans closer to his face. “Unlike these idiots,” he gestures to his companions, “I know you’re not him. I know exactly what he looks like, but I also know that you know something we don’t know about him, and until you tell us that, you’re in as much trouble as he is.”
Thulani tries to say ‘I don’t know’ but the sound doesn’t come out. He quickly coughs and swallows to clear his throat. “I don’t know anything,” he protests.
“You surely do, and we’re going to hurt you until the only option you have is to tell us what you know.” The man says it with easy confidence, as he has surely said it to countless suspects before.
This frightens Thulani so much he starts recalling places where Zothani might possibly be found. The flat in Durban Point Road, his girlfriend’s house in Mariannhill, Rasta’s place in KwaNdengezi.
“Are you willing to suffer for his sins? If you are, we’re happy to deliver,” the man stands up and cracks his fingers.
Thulani’s mind races now, he knows he has a limited time to decide. He remembers when it all began, in Grade 1 when Zothani stole the teacher’s money and hid it in his backpack. That was the first time he got punished for Zothani’s sins. From Grade 1 until this very moment he has taken the heat for almost every wrong thing Zothani has ever done.
“I… I’ll tell you something,” Thulani says, not yet sure what to do.
“Great,” the big man nods. “Where is he?”
“Grandma, why are they hurting Daddy?” Pumpkin’s frightened voice wafts in from the lounge.
“Shhh. Keep the children quiet, Mam. This is official police business,” answers a male voice.
“Talk!” The big man screams at Thulani.
Thulani imagines telling the man where Zothani lives. He imagines the Berets breaking down Zothani’s door and flooding his flat like they did here. Zothani, being the person he is, reacts by pulling out his gun. This big man in front of Thulani right now pulls the trigger of his machine gun. Bullets pop through Zothani’s flesh as effortless as a sewing machine needle on fabric. Thulani imagines the look on his mother’s face when Zothani’s coffin goes down. He imagines Njabulo and Pumpkin’s reactions when they find out he was the one who sold out their dad.
“I don’t know anything,” Thulani says.
“Fine. Suit yourself,” says the officer.
Thulani doesn’t get a moment to try to duck as a giant fist crashes into his face, knocking him into instant unconsciousness.
Tell us: what would you have done if you were Thulani?