The next morning, Rozena woke early, despite her late and broken night. It was the day before the Rising Star competition. The organisers had given them more free time than usual, so that the competitors could rehearse their project presentations and do whatever they needed to get ready for the next day.

After breakfast, Rozena, Emma and Natasha spent some time rehearsing. The Rising Star people had organised a number of empty rooms so that the competitors could prepare in privacy, but the three girls decided that they wanted to work together.

First Rozena went through her presentation, while Emma helped her by changing the slides and playing the sound effects to demonstrate how her panic-button smartphone app worked. Then Natasha showed off her competition piece, which was a slide-show of the cartoon explaining dog behaviour.

They joked about how they each wanted to win, but really, it didn’t feel like they were in competition with one another. Rozena loved seeing what Natasha was working on, and Natasha had some good suggestions on how Rozena could improve the way she explained her project to the judges.

The girls bought cookies, juice and chocolate and shared it all among the three of them. Natasha let Rozena use her tablet computer several times, to browse on the internet for pictures, or to show her something funny on Facebook. It would have been easy for Rozena to plant the trojan virus, but somehow, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Then, just before lunchtime, the door of their room opened and a man walked in. He didn’t knock, and he didn’t look at either Rozena or Emma. He walked up to Natasha and stood frowning down at her, where she sat on the floor with the other girls.

“Why don’t you answer your phone?” he said.

“Hi, Dad,” said Natasha, and shot Rozena and Emma an embarrassed look.

Rozena caught her breath. This must be Mr van Reenen, the man that SCRAM said was involved in gun smuggling. He didn’t look at all like her idea of a criminal. He was neatly dressed in a blue shirt and beige pants, had short, dark hair and glasses, like a perfectly ordinary man. But his expression was far from friendly.

“Why don’t you answer your phone?” he said to Natasha again, completely ignoring Rozena and Emma.

Natasha looked down at her hands. “I’m practising for the competit–”

But her father didn’t let her finish. “That nonsense again?” He shook his head impatiently. “I thought you were finished with that. Your mother told me you were here in this hotel, something to do with a school project.”

“It’s the final round of the Rising Star competition,” said Natasha, looking up at her father. “We’re having the–”

But again, he interrupted her. “Yes. Well. Anyway. I need you to give a message to your mother. Tell her that I won’t be in Cape Town this weekend, so she’ll have to make another plan about you visiting me. Can you tell her that?”

As he spoke, he was already glancing at his watch and turning to go.

“Sure, I’ll tell her,” said Natasha.

“Good,” said Mark van Reenen. And then, without a goodbye, he walked out the door, leaving it open behind him.

For a long moment, the three girls were quiet. The happy mood between them had been broken. Rozena could see that Natasha was embarrassed, but she didn’t know what to say to make her feel better.

Emma didn’t seem to have the same inhibitions. “Your Dad doesn’t care that you’re in the Rising Star competition?” she said. “He didn’t even know?”

Natasha shrugged, looking away. “He’s got a lot of work to do. He’s a busy guy. I hardly see him, now that he’s living here in Joburg.”

Emma snorted, to show what she thought of that, then she touched Natasha’s arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s none of my business.”

“No,” said Natasha, sitting up straighter. “It’s true. He doesn’t really care about anyone but himself. I think that’s the main reason my mother divorced him.”

“Well,” said Emma. “I’m hungry. Let’s go see if there’s any food in the dining hall.”

***

Tell us: Is van Reenen’s manner any evidence that he might be a gun runner? Why or why not?