Officer Dube strolled from his desk at the rear of the police station, passing three empty holding cells, to the coffee machine in reception. The sun was setting with haste on a frigid June afternoon in Johannesburg, and he needed a strong brew to get him through the night shift.
As a policeman, Mpilo Dube didn’t have much to do anymore, since the syndicate of ATM robbers went underground that April. A gang of vigilantes had been terrorizing Gauteng shopping malls for months, blowing up ATMs with crude home-made explosives – often in broad daylight. He would be the first to get the call, rush to the scene, and find nothing but molten plastic and half-burned bank notes fluttering in the breeze.
The gang always seemed to be one step ahead of him and his fellow law enforcers; executing heists with the skill and precision that only seasoned criminals are capable of.
Mpilo’s biggest fear, since he joined the police academy, was that he’d be called out to an incident involving his family. His was a big family, with countless uncles and aunties and cousins and nephews, many of whom had unfortunately chosen lives of petty crime. Mpilo turned a blind eye, as long as their crimes never progressed further than those of a petty nature.
He often thought about his older brother, Themba, who had run away from home when Mpilo was still in junior school. Nobody had heard from Themba since his exodus, and the rumours – most of which Mpilo couldn’t bear to listen to – were that he had joined the army and died fighting in the Central African Republic.
Themba had shown Mpilo how to shoot, practicing on rusty tin cans in their back yard. They would use an old .22 rifle that their father had given to Themba when he had turned eighteen. It featured a beautiful hand-etched eagle on the wooden stock, and made a clack sound when fired that would always make Mpilo cover his ears.
That was over ten years ago, and Mpilo hadn’t seen the rifle or his brother since.
He sank deep into his thoughts, as he often did when the station was quiet, and was swirling the last few sips of his now cold coffee when a frantic voice came blaring from his radio.
“Officer Roos to Officer Dube, come in!”
Mpilo put down his paper coffee cup, and lifted the walkie-talkie to his mouth.
“This is Officer Dube receiving. Everything alright, Officer Roos?” Mpilo’s hairs stood up on the back of his neck. The officer sounded frightened, and it takes something truly horrific to scare a policeman in South Africa.
“It’s them! The ATM busters! They’ve just hit a branch in Sandton… oh God…” Officer Roos trailed off.
“What is it?” Mpilo frantically shouted into the radio. He could hear gunshots and the clanking of bullets puncturing metal as Roos recorded the scene by holding his finger on his radio’s transmit button.
“The bodies,” Roos continued, “…they’re everywhere! So many people…. Requesting immediate backup! I repeat, we need immediate backup! They’re firing on us, and we’re heavily outnumbered!”
“Roger,” Mpilo transmitted, “We’re on our way!”
He grabbed his police badge and service pistol from his desk, beckoned two other officers to follow him, and they raced out of the building.
Once inside the police van, one officer flicked a switch to activate the siren. The other officer was checking to see if his sidearm, a Beretta, had enough ammunition in its magazine.
“I keep three full clips in the glove box.” Mpilo said, as he started the vehicle and sped off into the highveld dusk.
The trio were receiving instructions from a lady working the dispatch radio at head office. She kept them informed on where the ATM-robbing syndicate had last been spotted, and described the getaway vehicle they were using.
“I see it!” one officer announced after a short while. Up ahead a dusty blue Nissan 1400 bakkie was weaving through traffic, almost making contact with the barriers on either side of the two-lane road.
One officer leaned out of the passenger window with his Beretta in hand, and fired two rounds towards the getaway vehicle. His first bullet hit the back window, shattering it into a crumble of little glass cubes. The second bullet hit the back left tyre.
A loud popping sound echoed out, after which the driver lost control and crashed into the left barrier, scraping the vehicle’s side and taking off a side mirror before coming to a standstill.
Mpilo hit the brakes, and came to a halt as the first occupant of the getaway vehicle stepped out with a gun aimed directly at the policemen.
Mpilo had been trained for situations like this, and followed protocol. They quickly wound their windows down, and swung the police van’s doors open. Mpilo dropped to his knees behind the driver side door just as the first shots started coming in, penetrating the van like pencils through a mosquito net.
The officer sitting at the passenger door took a bullet to his head before he was able to exit the vehicle. He slumped face-first against the door, then slid sideways and into the space between the door and road surface.
Seeing this, the second officer instinctively protected his head with his arms and took cover, wetting himself at the sight of his colleague’s instantaneous and gruesome demise.
Mpilo waited patiently, listening to the sounds the guns made, and counted their shots.
Two guns; one handgun and one rifle. The handgun sounds like a Glock, and the rifle doesn’t sound high-caliber at all.
The barrage of bullets eventually died down, which meant the shooters were reloading. Mpilo cocked his Beretta, and raised up onto his haunches with the firearm pointed towards the wrecked Nissan bakkie.
He saw two men. One was standing directly in front of Mpilo, reloading his handgun in the open. The man had just enough time to see the bullet explode from Mpilo’s Beretta before it ripped into his chest and buried itself in his heart.
Before the man with a hole in his chest hit the ground, Mpilo spotted a second robber taking cover behind the Nissan’s driver-side door. The smarter of the two crooks was reloading his rifle. The man stayed there for a few seconds, seemingly gathering what courage he could muster, then launched himself up and around the door – pointing his firearm directly at the Mpilo’s location.
Mpilo pulled the trigger twice, sending two slugs into the man’s abdomen. He dropped his rifle and grabbed at his stomach before falling forward and onto his face. The last of the ATM robbers tried to roll onto his back, but couldn’t. He let out two gurgling noises, trying to speak his last words through the blood that was filling his throat and mouth, then breathed a heavy sigh before his heart stopped beating.
A few seconds passed; the silence sounded strange after the turmoil of exploding gunpowder and punctured metal.
“You can come out now.” Mpilo called, looking to his left at the trembling officer wedged between the seats and dashboard.
Mpilo stood up, and froze in place as he looked at the rifle lying next to the facedown man. It was splattered with blood, and the wood was worn down in places, but he could clearly make out the majestic bird of prey etched into the stock.
He stepped over it, and approached the man. Blood was slowly pooling on the tar around torso, running down the road’s slight slope and soaking the gravel roadside verge.
Mpilo took a few deep breaths, as the shock of knowing who he just killed set in like a blow to the kidneys.
He slipped his foot under the man’s left shoulder, and kicked him over onto his back. The face was older, almost unrecognizably hardened from years of dangerous living, but Mpilo knew who it was. The now lifeless eyes left no doubt.
It was his older brother, Themba.
“Should I call for a body bag?” Mpilo’s fellow officer asked after finally exiting the bullet-riddled van.
Mpilo put two fingers to his dead brother’s neck, then slowly walked over to the other robber and did the same.
“I think we’ll need more than one.” He said, as a tear travelled down his cheek, then slipped his Beretta back into its holster.
© De Wet Ferreira
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