Wolf Logic: Sample

 

Written and illustrated by Masha du Toit

Copyright 2015 Masha du Toit

Inside

chapter

“What do you call that?” Cadet Jooste came to a stop in front of Gia. “What’s this—thing you are wearing?”

Gia glanced down at her clothes. She was dressed exactly like the other recruits—grey shirt over a black vest, dark grey trousers, black shoes. Not really warm enough for the early morning chill, but Gia knew better than to show she felt the cold. It was still dark, although the eastern sky was stained with the coming of dawn and she could hear traffic starting on Liesbeek Parkway. Less than twenty-four hours ago she’d been in her own bed, in her own bedroom. Now she was shivering in a parking lot, surrounded by strangers.

Cadet Jooste gave a disgusted snort. “You’re supposed to be wearing your white shirt. Didn’t you hear me tell you?”

No, you didn’t. The words crowded on Gia’s tongue, but she swallowed them with an effort. “No, ma’am.”

“Back you go to the dorm and get changed. The white shirt, get it? And jump. Sergeant Landman will have you for breakfast if you’re late.”

Back Gia went, up the slippery marble steps to the front door. Her footsteps echoed in the tiled corridor beyond, then up the staircase that must once have been grand but was now scarred and faded. The dormitory she shared with the other girls was a similar combination of faded elegance and modern neglect. Tall sash windows had been painted closed. A high, pattern-pressed ceiling was laced with rusty stains. The floor, once an expanse of polished wood, was now covered with grey carpet.

She headed for the row of battered lockers and opened her own.

What am I doing here? What on earth am I doing here? The question had drummed through her from the moment she’d opened her eyes that morning. Only a day before, joining the Special Branch Youth Brigade had seemed like the solution to all her problems. After all, that had been the bargain she’d made with the Belle Gente. She’d be their spy here in Valkenberg and, in exchange, they’d leave her brother alone. What could be neater? And now here she was, groggy from lack of sleep, her head rattling with a jumble of rules.

Always ask permission before. Never look at. Always stand up when. Never wear your. Address all senior officers as.

Gia changed shirts quickly and headed back out the door, buttoning the white shirt as she went. Calm down. All I have to do is stay out of trouble. Don’t catch anyone’s attention. As long as they don’t notice me too much…

It was a close thing, but she made it just in time, stepping into her place moments before Sergeant Landman came striding towards them. “Mantjies! Jooste!” he snapped. “The trucks are on time this morning. We’ve got some stuff to sort, but only two live ones—”

He stopped abruptly. “Cadet! What is that?”

Gia fought the urge to shrink out from under his stare. “Sir?”

The sergeant’s lips thinned. “What is that you are wearing, cadet?”

Gia saw Jooste's smug expression. Okay, so that’s how it is. Some kind of prank. Well, nothing for it but to face the music. She tried to stand as she’d been instructed, straight but relaxed. Sergeant Landman was right in front of her now, but she did not dare catch his eye in case he thought she was being insolent.

“I said, what is that you are wearing, cadet?” Gia looked at the air above his left shoulder. “Sir?”

“Why are you wearing a formal shirt, cadet? Are you trying to be funny?”

She could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.

“No, I know what it is.” The little man rocked back on his heels. “I know this trick. You think you can get out of doing the dirty work by wearing your best clothes. Well, you are out of luck. Your name, cadet?”

“Grobbelaar, sir.”

“Grobbelaar, take off that shirt and—hang it over that railing there, out of the way. And don’t think I’m finished with you.”

He seemed to be expecting an answer, so Gia said “Yes, sir,” and started unbuttoning her shirt, thankful that she was wearing a vest underneath. Her hands shook and the buttons kept slipping. She was horrified to feel herself blushing. For some reason, it seemed essential that no one should realise how humiliated she felt. Not the ridiculous little sergeant. Not Jooste. And especially not her fellow recruits, who all seemed to be avoiding looking at her.

Shivering in the chilly breeze, she hung the shirt on the metal rail that bordered the parking area. To her relief, Sergeant Landman had lost interest in her and was giving orders to Jooste and Mantjies, the two senior cadets in charge of the recruits.

“Cadet Jooste, you’ll be managing the checklist and the refills. Cadet Mantjies, you’re to deal with whatever rubbish the night patrol have decided to dump on us. Don’t bother to sort it, just bin it all ready for collection.” Landman turned to the recruits. “You there and you and you go with Mantjies. You and you are with Jooste.”

Gia noticed that he was picking only boys for Mantjies’s group.

Then the sergeant’s gaze fell on her and his mouth tightened. “Oh, yes. And you. You’re with Mantjies. The rest of you are with Jooste.”

Mantjies was a tall boy, one of the older cadets who’d been at Valkenberg for a year or two already. He was skinny for his height, but held himself with easy confidence. “Grobbelaar, right?” he said as he checked her name off his list. He seemed amused and Gia found herself smiling back at him. It was a relief to see a friendly face. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

“Okay, guys.” Mantjies slipped his pen back in his pocket. “Let’s get moving on this. Krynauw and Ford, you see those roller bins over there? I want them lined up here, all of them. Vetkoek, the aprons and gloves are over there, on the steps. Make sure everyone gets one apron and one pair of gloves.”

The boys sprang to obey and for a while everything was drowned by the thunder of empty roller bins. Then a deeper rumble caught Gia’s attention—headlights on the road to the main gate, black shapes against the dim greens and greys of the trees. The trucks turned into the parking area, their lights sparking yellow reflections on the damp tar. They drove right up to the group of recruits then stopped with a hiss of pneumatics. Doors opened.

“Morning Sergeant!” Figures emerged from the lit interior, Special Branch constables, bodies thick with the padding of their protective gear. Some wore hoods that hid their faces and Gia guessed that these must be sniffer units.

Werewolves.

A man got out from the driver side of one of the trucks. “We’ve got some visitors for you, sergeant.”

“Constable Robertson,” said Sergeant Landman. “Quiet night?”

“Oh, not bad, not bad,” said the constable, taking off his cap and rubbing a gloved hand through his hair. “Got some pets for Doctor, though.” He jerked a thumb at the last truck in the row. “And a heap of rubbish. Cleaned up a walg or two, so there’s plenty of stuff back there.”

“Mantjies!” Sergeant Landman looked round. “That’s for you then.”

“You know what to do,” Constable Robertson told Mantjies. “But watch it, there might still be some goggas in there. See if you can trap them. The doctor will be pleased.” He turned away. “Jeffries! Bring those two over here.”

Constables were manhandling two figures down out of the back of one of the trucks. Gia could not help staring. These must be the “live ones” that Sergeant Landman had mentioned earlier, prisoners, arrested by the night patrol. They were taller than the constables and walked with a curious, shuffling gait. She would have liked to see more, but Cadet Mantjies was calling his group together. “Okay, everybody got their aprons and gloves on? Good.”

“Mantjies!” Sergeant Landman was back. “Leave the inside work for this one, right?” He jerked a thumb at Gia. “The others can work the bins.” He gave Gia a sour look. “Teach you a lesson, Cadet Grobbelaar.”

-oOo-

A constable threw open the back doors of the truck and Gia nearly retched at the stench that came rolling out.

“Whoa, that’s ripe!” said Mantjies. “Well, in you go, Cadet!”

Gia grabbed hold of the cold metal of the tailgate and pulled herself up. No point in thinking about this. Just makes it worse.

“There’s a head-mounted torch hanging just inside the door,” said the constable. “Also a broom and some boots. Watch your footing. You don’t want to go down in that lot.”

“But what’s in there?” asked one of the other recruits, the boy whose round face had gained him the nickname of Vetkoek.

“It’s rubbish,” said Mantjies. “The patrols confiscate any walg hoards they come across. Most of it’s just junk, but there’s always a chance of something more valuable, or something illegal. Magical equipment, drugs, whatever. Our job is just to get it binned. The doctor and his people will sort it. Now, you guys, Pote, Vetkoek, Foster, you are in charge of the bins. Roll them over here by the back of the truck for Grobbelaar to fill and then take them to the New Block, you know where that is?”

The boys nodded and Pote said, “Yes, sir!”

Mantjies looked up at Gia. “There should be some empty bags in there you can use. Watch your step. If you find anything that’s obviously valuable or dangerous, shout out and let me deal with it. Don’t go fooling with any of it, you got me?”

“Yes, sir.”

The truck reeked of sun-ripened garbage, laced with the tang of ancient cat pee and other, worse odours. Gia tried to breathe as shallowly as she could as she strapped the torch to her forehead and stepped into the boots. They were much too large for her. She’d have to walk carefully not to trip over her own feet.

Where’s the broom? Oh, there.

The torchlight revealed a row of rubbish bags spilling their entrails over the metal floor. Those are no good. Better try and get as much as possible into some unbroken bags. Gia took a gulp of the relatively clean air near the door and waded in, broom in one hand, bag in the other. Just as she’d feared, the old bags split as soon as she tried to lift them. The broom was not much use either and soon she was simply scooping rubbish with her gloved hands. The beam from her torch showed more than she needed to see. Half-empty tins, disintegrating cardboard boxes, a dead rat, old shoes and a number of small, tightly wrapped packets that puzzled her until she realised they were used diapers.

It’s not so bad. At least it’s warm in here, out of the wind. Soon enough, though, she had to give up the struggle against the stench and stumble to the doors, dragging what she’d gathered with her.

“Pretty bad, is it?” said one of the boys outside. This was Pote, a slender boy who owed his nickname to his over-large feet.

“Oh, man,” She got enough breath to speak. “You don’t even know.”

“Well, tip it in.” He bumped the roller bin against the tailgate.

After that, it wasn’t so bad. She found her rhythm, filling a bag as far as it could go and gasping in fresh air as she lowered it into the roller bin. When a bin was full, two boys dragged it away, rumbling over the tar, while another bin was pushed into place with a bang.

The boots made her shuffle rather than walk, but the gloves and apron kept most of the stuff off her. The worst moment was when she tried to lift a box and the bottom collapsed, dropping its contents in a wet heap. The stench of it enveloped her like rancid velvet but all Gia could do was stare at the crawling mass spilled over her boots: reddish-black in the torchlight, a pearly glint of maggots plumply stitching their way through whatever it was and she nearly lost control. She strode, gagging, to the doors and hung there for a moment.

“You okay?” asked Vetkoek, anxiously peering up at her.

Gia nodded, still trying to deny what she’d seen. Surely not. It could not be? She’d seen an eye, a gleaming row of teeth… Back she went, determined not to disgrace herself. She seized the box again, forcing herself to look and felt like laughing with relief.

Just a dog. A dead dog. But how had it got into that state? It looked as though it had been flayed. She shook open a new bag, gritted her teeth and using the box, shovelled the thing in. “Dead dog,” she said to Vetkoek, who was holding the roller bin. “Or anyway, I think it’s a dog. Better tell Mantjies.”

Vetkoek nodded, his eyes large.

“Grobbelaar!” Mantjies was approaching. “How’s it going there?”

“Nearly done,” she called. “Another small heap and then it’s just the stuff to sweep up.” She hesitated, suddenly unsure of her role. Can I just ask for stuff? Or is there some special Youth Brigade way I’m supposed to know about?

Mantjies looked up at her, eyebrows raised. He seemed friendly enough.

“I think I’ll need a mop,” she said at last. “It’s pretty sticky in here.”

“I’m right ahead of you, cadet.” Mantjies grinned and Gia saw that several of the recruits had long-handled mops and one of them was unreeling a hosepipe. “Pick up what’s left,” said Mantjies then stopped as a siren cut through the air.

An ambulance drove by, wailing, all its lights flashing. Gia watched it turn and draw to a halt in front of a building some distance off.

“What’s that about?” Pote asked Mantjies, who was shading his eyes against the rising sun, staring at the ambulance.

“That’s the prison block, down there,” said Mantjies. “Somebody must have—”

The group looked at him expectantly, but he did not finish his sentence. Instead, he turned to Gia. “You need a break, cadet?”

“No, it’s okay,” said Gia. “Let me just get the last of it out.”

She ducked back inside and then felt the truck rock as some of the other recruits followed her. “Whoa, man, what a pong!” Vetkoek stood just inside the door, staring in.

“Out the way, cadet,” said Mantjies. “I want Foster, Mostert, Pote, all of you in there picking up this mess. Then we’ll turn the hose on it and mop it up properly.”

It was light enough by now that Gia no longer needed the torch, but the area at the back of the truck was still in shadow. As the other cadets moved around, picking up the few pieces of rubbish still lying about, Gia shone her torch into the shadowed area. One more bag. It was half empty too, a deflated pool of black plastic. Gia bent to pick it up, then paused. Something moving under there. A live rat, this time?

She nudged the bag with her foot and was rewarded by a rustling, scrabbling sound. Definitely something alive.

“What’s wrong?” Vetkoek was behind her. “Something in there?” He reached for the bag and just as he touched it, something exploded out of the plastic folds, came whirring up straight at Gia’s face. Before she had time for thought, she’d snatched at it with both hands and held it, wriggling, at arm’s length.

“Way to go!” shouted somebody. “What a catch!”

“It’s gonna chew your arm off!”

“Jeez, what the hell is that thing?”

“Don’t let it go!”

The thing had wrapped two barbed claws over her gloved thumb and was trying to chew her fingers off. So far, it didn’t hurt more than a savage pinch, but she suspected it was capable of inflicting more serious harm. It had a narrow, insectile face with brilliantly faceted eyes and delicate feelers swept back from its forehead like the horns of an antelope. The little body vibrated in her fingers. Gia tried to hold it as gently as possible without letting it slip free.

“Well done,” said Cadet Mantjies, from close beside her. “We’ll get a box for it. Can you hold it just a bit longer?”

Gia nodded. The creature had stopped trying to pinch her thumb off and was trying a new form of attack. Shimmering shapes were forming in the space between its feelers. Gia looked away.

“Krynauw,” ordered Mantjies. “There’s an extra critter box in the first truck. Jump it.”

Moments later, Gia inserted the creature carefully into the unzipped box and with a “Ready? Now!” from Mantjies, she let go and watched as he zipped it up. As the creature battered around inside the box, she felt an unexpected pang of guilt.

I should just have dodged out of the way. If she’d not grabbed for it, it would be gone by now, flying free. Back to where it was supposed to be.

The other recruits seemed oblivious to her mood. They thumped her on the back and shook her by the hand, complimenting her catch. Somebody asked if she played cricket and next thing they were calling her a “Zacky” after the famous player.

Cadet Mantjies allowed the recruits a minute of bouncing and exclaiming then he called them all to order to do the final bits of cleaning up. Toppers and Pote were sent off with the box, with strict instructions to take it straight to Doctor Scubbe. The rest were set to work, cleaning and mopping. By the time Sergeant Landman came round to check, not a trace of rubbish remained either in the truck or on the ground behind it and all the bins were neatly lined up.

“Breakfast, now,” said Mantjies. He grinned, holding his nose. “And you guys better all grab a shower first.”

Gia followed the others back into the building. She did not see Cadet Jooste until she blocked her way. “So, Grobbelaar,” said the cadet. “Pretty brave of you, to grab a lacefester with your bare hands.”

Gia looked warily up at the taller girl, wondering at her scornful tone. “I had gloves on. It wasn’t such a big deal, really.”

The cadet was looked her up and down, a smile on her lips, but none in her eyes. “There’s something funny about you, Grobbelaar.” Then she stepped out of Gia’s way. “Go on, get inside.” She jerked her thumb toward the railing, where Gia’s white shirt still hung. “And don’t forget your shirt.”

lacefester

Gia let the hot shower blast directly into her face. It was pure bliss. Not just the steaming water but the simple fact of being alone. She’d not had a moment to herself since arriving at Valkenberg. Even using the toilet was a communal experience, with people having conversations between the stalls.

Then shower curtains moved and she felt a gust of cold air. “Wasting water, cadet! First-years don’t get hot water, don’t you know that?”

Cadet Govender, another of the senior cadets, reached to turn off the hot tap, while Jooste grinned over her shoulder. The water became an icy blast. Gia stood, dripping wet, naked but for her mother’s silver bracelets.

“You got a problem, cadet?” said Govender.

“No,” Gia said. “But you’re getting wet.”

For a moment the girl held her stare. Then she let the curtain drop back and Gia heard the two cadets move away. “Told you she’s trouble, that one,” she heard Jooste say.

Gia washed herself quickly. After the first shock, the cold water was not unpleasant. She stepped out of the shower stall and dried herself, her skin tingling. All around her were the other girls, all new recruits to the Special Branch Youth Brigade, just like her. Gia was not used to being naked in front of strangers and pulled on her clothes as quickly as she could.

Cadet Motsepe was the most at ease of them all, still only in her underwear, unhurriedly peering in the mirror and patting at the neat rows of braids that patterned her scalp. The skinny redhead next to her was Cadet Clarke and the girl with the determined jaw was Cadet van Niekerk. Then there was Cadet Isaacs, a small girl with a fading bruise on her cheek. Something about her reminded Gia of the street kids she’d seen begging on corners, a mixture of pushy confidence and suspicion.

There were others, but Gia could not remember their names. The girl with the tattoos, who’d kicked up such a fuss, yesterday, at having to remove all her earrings. Now she seemed on the edge of tears, puffy-faced and quite subdued, no trace of attitude remaining. And the pretty girl with the honey-brown hair and large blue eyes. Quite a few of the girls wore the silver bracelets that marked them as purists, although none were as elaborately patterned as Gia’s. None of them spoke in the watchful presence of Jooste and Govender.

Gia buried her face in her towel, breathing in the comforting scent of her own wet hair.

I can do this. It’s not so bad.

-oOo-

Breakfast was in the refectory, a sunny room full of the noise of cutlery on plates and loud conversation. All of the Special Branch Youth Brigade was gathered here. Gia got her food—a bowl of mieliepap porridge and some toast—and joined the other recruits at their table. For a moment she sat, unable to eat. The scent of mieliepap brought back memories of home, of Mandy stirring a big pot of it in the kitchen, of her brother Nico making milk rivers in his bowl. It was one of the games she’d played with him, to get him to eat his breakfast. The porridge was a landscape that had to be dug out, one spoonful at a time, creating channels for the milk to flow.

Well, it was for Nico, after all, that she was here. To keep the Belle Gente from taking him. As long as she was a useful spy, kept her side of the bargain, they’d leave him alone.

She took a shaky breath and forced herself to eat.

-oOo-

After breakfast, the new recruits were split into two groups, half of them headed for data capture training and the rest, Gia’s group, were to go to C block.

“Also known as the Wolf Cages,” said Jooste as she led them out the door. “You’ll be with Sergeant Kemp. She’s in charge of the Special Branch werewolves. Better watch your step. Kemp’s a real bitch. She’ll bite your head off and spit down the hole.”

Sergeant Kemp met them at the C Block entrance. The recruits looked at her warily, but, “Thank you, Cadet Jooste, I’ll take them from here,” was all she said.

Jooste left and Sergeant Kemp stood, hands hooked in her belt, rocking slightly on the balls of her feet. Her short-cropped hair was grey at the temples and her eyes were very pale in her tanned face. She wore fingerless leather gloves, and her rolled-up sleeves revealed the silver tracks of multiple scars on her forearms.

“Right!” Kemp said at last. “I’m gonna tell you a few things out here, before we go into the cages. You better know now that I don’t repeat myself. So listen up, or you might end up worse than dead.”

Vetkoek gave a nervous giggle, which earned him an unimpressed look. “That’s right,” said Kemp. “There’s worse things than dying. Work with weres and you learn that lesson pretty damn quick. So listen up. Lesson one. Forget everything you think you know about weres. For example. Weres don’t change at every full moon. Maybe they used to, before industrialisation and artificial light. Maybe the weres who live out in the wilds still change with the moon, we don’t know. Here, we trigger the change by controlling photoperiods. That is, the light levels they are exposed to. So rule number one in the cages. Don’t switch any lights on, or off, unless by a direct order from me, or one of the controllers.

“Even flashing a torch in a were’s eyes can throw out their cycle and waste months of careful work. Next thing. Being bitten does not always mean being turned. It’s a lot more difficult to make a werewolf than people think. But being bitten will always leave a nasty scar and of course, if you are stupid or unlucky enough to get it in the throat or one of the major arteries, you’ll simply bleed to death.

“We’ll go over the first aid procedure for treating and cleaning a werewolf bite, but prevention, as they say, is better than cure. Now.” Sergeant Kemp let go her belt. She emphasised each phrase by slapping the knuckles of one leather-gloved hand into the palm of the other. “Do not give a werewolf anything, or take anything from a werewolf, unless by direct order. Do not go into any part of the wolf cages unless ordered to do so. Never turn your back on a werewolf, unless it is muzzled and in the care of a controller.”

Gia saw that several of her fellow cadets had gone pale. Everyone’s attention was riveted on the sergeant.

“And above all, do not, under any circumstances, ever, trust a werewolf. It’s best not to talk to them, although that cannot always be avoided. Right. There’s a lot more to learn, but those are the basics. If you follow orders and use your brains, you should be okay. Follow me.”

-oOo-

Kemp opened the main gate and herded them all into the cramped space between that and another, internal gate.

“Everybody in? Right. Notice that it’s impossible for both of these gates to be open at the same time. If one is open, a bar drops down to lock the other one.” She demonstrated, attempting to open the internal gate while the outer gate still stood open. It banged and rattled in its frame, but it was clear that it would be impossible to open it.

“See that bar up there? Watch it move aside as I close the outside gate.”

The gate closed with a solid thump. They all heard the lock engage and this time, the internal gate ran smoothly on its railings when the sergeant pulled at it.

“This is one of the safety mechanisms we have in place, to prevent a mass break out.”

Beyond the gate was a long corridor, cement floored and open to the sky. On either side were cages fronted with metal bars.

“These are the outside pens,” said Sergeant Kemp, walking down between the rows of cages. “We call this the daylight row. This is where we keep the mischlings and the spurhunde that are in their dog-head stage, ready for sniffer duty. The werewolves here have been stalled partway through their transformation. Human body, wolf head. The mischlings are the best for general detection of magical activity. The spurhunde are the trackers, the scent hounds.”

Gia looked at the cages that surrounded her. They were barred on all sides and roofed over with a dense ceiling of metal mesh. At the back of each was a concrete shelter. These appeared empty at first, but then Gia saw a man standing in a shadowed entrance of one.

Or was it a man? He was leaning in the door, smoking a cigarette, hood pulled up over his head so that his face was not visible.

Kemp was still talking.

“The dog-heads are kept out here, ready for patrol, for a week at a time. We keep them stalled by controlling the hormones in their feed. Dog-head is the best stage for police work. The full wolf stage is too difficult to control and the human stage too unpredictable.”

As she spoke, Kemp led them slowly down the corridor. Gia had trouble concentrating on her words, distracted by the figures she now saw lurking in the shadows behind the grilles on either side. Only one werewolf stood right up against the front, fingers hooked through the bars. Her body was lithe and muscular and her face reminded Gia of an Afghan hound—elegant and fine boned, with a long, aristocratic muzzle and large, dark brown eyes. Tattooed roses with thorny stems coiled around her bare arms.

She didn’t get those tattoos in here. Where did she come from, before she got locked in that cage?

“This is Lizzie,” said Sergeant Kemp. “Lizzie’s been here in the outside pens for five days now, going out on patrol every day.”

Lizzie looked calmly back at the staring cadets, but one ear flicked a little, as though troubled by a fly.

“Lizzie’s one of our best spurhunde,” said Kemp. “She hardly even needs a controller, even though she’s not been here as long as some of the others. She’s exceptionally good at urban work. Not all werewolves can handle the crowds and noise of the city.”

“Sergeant?”

“Yes, Cadet?”

The questioner was the pretty, blue-eyed girl that Gia knew by now was called Cadet Mayer. “Why do they only stay in this stage for a week? Couldn’t you just keep them like this permanently?”

“Doesn’t work.” Sergeant Kemp started walking again. “They go insane. Or their cycle goes out of whack and then we can’t get them under control again. It’s best to keep it predictable. Wolf, dog-head, human, dog-head, each for a week. Twenty-eight days in total. Now, some of you may have noticed these.”

Kemp pointed at a box mounted on the side of the cage. It had a little sliding door, which the sergeant opened to reveal a large, red button. “This is the alarm. There’s one on every cage, as you can see. If you push this button, it starts the alarm, calling reinforcements from all over the compound. We use this only in a true emergency situation. An escape attempt, weres fighting, that kind of thing. Pushing this button brings down some serious force.” Sergeant Kemp looked them over coldly. “I would not advise anyone pushing this for a prank.”

They’d reached the end of the row of cages and now entered a large, open-plan room. Several people turned to look as they came in, Special Branch constables that Gia guessed must be the werewolf controllers, as well as some of the older Youth Brigade cadets. They were working at the basins and counters that lined the room.

“Hey, guys,” called Kemp. “These are the new recruits. Come to do your dirty work for you. Take a good look at them, you’ll be having to keep them out of trouble for the next few weeks, until they know their way around.”

“Fresh meat,” said one of the controllers with a grin, a woman almost as broad as she was tall. “We’ll keep them in line, don’t worry, Sarge. Cut a few bits off here and there...”

There was some laughter at this, but Kemp went on as though she had not heard. “This is what we call the kitchen. It’s where we prepare the food,” she said. “Helping out here will be one of your duties.” She pointed at a metal door. “This is the freezer, where we keep the meat.” She pulled on the door and dragged it open. Everyone drew back from the cold air that came breathing out. “There’s a handle on the inside as well, in case any of you are ever fool enough to get shut inside there.” The door shut with a thunk. “Through that door is the surgery and the medical supply storage. And here is the file room, where we keep our records. You’ll all be filing your check sheets here, every time you are on duty.”

“Sergeant?” One of the controllers was drying his hands on a stained towel.

“Yes, Controller Pienaar?”

“Captain Witbooi sent a message—he’ll be coming round to see how the recruits are doing. Should be here in a few minutes.”

“Oh. Well, I’m just taking these guys to the midnight row. Should be done with that before he arrives.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sergeant Kemp opened another door near the back. “This is the light-lock. Follow me, there’s enough space here for everyone.”

There was a small room beyond the door, closed off on the far side by another door. It was dark, the only light coming from the door that Sergeant Kemp held open while the recruits trooped through. When she closed it, a red light came on.

“The light-lock works just like the gates at the entrance. It is impossible for both of the doors to be open at the same time. That’s so that we can go into and out of here without accidentally flooding the row with light. This red light has a minimal effect on the werewolves, so it’s fairly safe to use.”

She pulled open the inner door.

“This is the part we call the twilight row. This first lot is in a half-light phase at the moment, so you’ll be able to see fairly well.”

The space beyond the door stank of wet dog, as well as a musky, itchy scent that made Gia’s skin prickle. There was a low, rushing hum, probably an extractor fan. As her eyes grew used to the dim light, she saw that this area was similar to the first set of cages, except that it was roofed and much smaller. There were narrow red strip lights all along the ceiling, giving off a dull glow, just enough to see by.

Then she noticed a shape right up against the nearest grid. A dog—no, surely that was far too big to be a dog. It looked like a cross between a German Shepherd and a small bear. The cadets eyed it nervously, but Sergeant Kemp just continued with her lecture as though it was not there.

“At the moment, all the occupants in here are in full wolf stage. That’s not always the case. You’ll see some full human phase in here sometimes. It can be difficult to keep track of it all. Always remember, that they are all werewolves. Newcomers here have a habit of thinking of the weres in this stage as dogs, or as wolves. They are not.”

She looked them over, one at a time. “Remember that. They are werewolves. They know how to screw with your mind. They can understand what we say. Many of them can read. And they have better memories than most humans.” Again, one leather-clad hand slapped the other to emphasise her words. “Don’t. Ever. Underestimate them.”

A movement in one of the cages caught Gia’s eye. It was a dog-like werewolf, white and skinny enough to show ribs. It was lying on the concrete, gnawing at something. As she followed the group further down the corridor, she saw that there was a werewolf in every cage and in some cages, more than one. Some had their ears pricked, some glanced sidelong, but all of them seemed intensely aware of the group of cadets.

“Now through here.” Kemp had reached another metal door. “Is the midnight row. Follow me.”

Once again, they were shut in a red-lit space between two doors. This time, Sergeant Kemp switched off the safe light before she opened the inside door.

“The red light doesn’t have much of an effect, but it’s best to minimise all light in this area. We only use torches here, although in an emergency it is possible to switch on safe lights to flood the area.” There was a click and a small red glow showed in her hand. The space beyond the door was utterly black. Without the sergeant’s torch, they would all have been completely blind. As it was, all that they could see was the grid closest to them, picked out in the soft, red light.

“Come on, move along,” said Kemp, as the group of recruits shuffled reluctantly forward. Gia heard the door shut softly behind them. Here, too, the dominant sound was the dull roar of extractor fans.

“You’ll be coming in here regularly,” said Kemp. “To help the controllers give out food and to clean the cages, of course.”

“Morning, Sergeant,” said someone right next to Gia. She felt her heart trip and stutter with fright. “It is morning, isn’t it?” It was a man’s voice, refined, not young and with an Afrikaans accent. Gia stared into the dark, trying to make out the speaker, but she could see nothing at all.

“Best not to think about the time, Lucky,” said Sergeant Kemp.

“Wise words, Sergeant,” said the man. “But that is a skill I have not mastered. Yet. Forgetting about the time. You’d think that would be easy to do, in here. But you’ve brought me some visitors. Young ones, by their scent.”

There was a clanging from deeper in the cages. A woman shouted, “When can I go to the beach. I want to go to the beach!”

A younger voice groaned, “Oh, go to sleep!”

“It’s always dark in here?” asked one of the cadets.

“Yes,” said Kemp.

“Always,” came Lucky’s voice. “Always dark. You think you’ll get used to it. But you never do.”

It was a relief to leave that dark, breathless space. Gia hoped that she would not be asked to spend too much time there.

-oOo-

Captain Witbooi was waiting for them in the kitchen. It seemed very bright in there, after the darkness of the midnight row. Next to the weathered Kemp, the captain looked neat, his uniform perfect and crisp, the silver of his purist bracelets gleaming against his dark skin.

“Morning, Cadets. Sergeant Kemp’s been teaching you all about werewolves, I see! They settling in, sergeant?”

Kemp gave a noncommittal grunt.

“Very good,” said the captain. “I’ve just got a few words to say, then I’ll let you get on with it, sergeant. Cadets, I see there are still a few of you who’ve not handed in certificates of purity.” He glanced at a slip of paper. “Cadets Motsepe, Van Niekerk and Ford.” He looked up at them. “I’ve contacted your parents and it seems the three of you have not, in fact, been deep tested yet.” He folded the paper and slipped it in his pocket. “That is not in itself a problem, of course. We’ll simply perform the test this afternoon. It will mean that you will miss your data capture training, but that cannot be helped. The three cadets I named, present yourselves at the Annex at two pm and we’ll quickly get that paperwork sorted and you can get back into the programme.”

“Yes, sir,” said the three cadets. Motsepe and Ford both looked unworried, but Gia thought that Van Niekerk seemed a little anxious. She remembered her own test, not so long ago and wondered what would happen if one of these cadets turned out to have a magical talent. Could one join the Youth Brigade as a magical? She doubted it. But, on the other hand, what about Cadet Lee, who’d visited her school with Captain Witbooi and who’d come out of the Special Branch children’s programme? She was a telepath, after all.

“Well!” said the captain. “I’m always glad to see the new recruits hard at work. You’ll find many opportunities to learn new skills here. As you may have heard already, I like to say that the Special Branch constables are more like soldiers than like cops, but that’s not really true. Soldiers must be obedient. They must follow an order even if it goes against common sense. So soldiers are put through a training process that strips them of their individuality, removes that irritating tendency to think for themselves.” He smiled and the cadets laughed obediently.

“But here at the Youth Brigade, the ability to think is exactly what we are after. I call the graduates from this programme our warrior scientists. And scientists need, above all, to think for themselves. Reason! That’s what it is all about. Conquering the superstitious fear that feeds the likes of the Belle Gente and all other magical terrorists. That’s what we’ll be doing. Teaching you to think for yourselves, so that you can come up with the weapons, the strategies, the inventions that will protect our country from the beasts and monsters that threaten our peace.” The captain glanced at Sergeant Kemp. “But I’m taking up your time, sergeant. I’m sure Sergeant Kemp has a lot more to show you. Well, cadets, back to work. Pure and true!”

He brought his arms up in the silver salute—crossed at the wrist, silver bracelets flashing.

“Pure and true!” responded the cadets. Caught by surprise, Gia made the gesture, but did not say the words.

-oOo-

The rest of the morning was spent learning all about the work done in the wolf cages. Sergeant Kemp gave a first aid demonstration of treating a were bite that nearly had several of the cadets fainting, to the immense amusement of the controllers. She also showed them the proper way to hold a sharp knife and how to sharpen it to a keen edge. The recruits learnt how to defrost meat and how to cut it up into chunks without endangering their own fingers.

“Not that the doggies mind a bit of blood,” joked one of the controllers. “But it’s probably best not to give them the taste of it.”

Not all the meat was red meat. There were buckets full of fish and squid, all of which had to be cleaned and cut up, weighed and stored in the correct containers. Here too, there were tricks to learn. Squid eyes, unless treated with care, squirted dark red liquid over the unwary. And hidden in the slippery flesh of their heads, Gia found that each one had a little nut-brown parrot beak that had to be picked out and thrown away.

Preparing the werewolves’ food was a complex process. Each individual werewolf had to be fed exactly the right mix at the right time. The correct fluid or powder had to be measured out and stirred in and then marked off on a checklist.

“You fuck this up, you fuck up badly,” the demonstrating controller said as she dripped a clear fluid into a cup of water, then poured the water over the ground meat mixture in the bowl. “This is what keeps them in phase, or pulls them from one phase into another. Put too much in, you can drive the doggies crazy.”

They were shown how to clean the food bowls and the safest way to put fresh food and water in the cages. How to clean the muzzles and leashes and which pegs to hang them on. Everything had to be done just so, everything had a label, or a checklist.

The controllers clearly enjoyed having the cadets there to do the slog work. “Almost as good as having the brakke back again,” said Controller Pienaar. He and another controller, a woman called Klaasen, were standing in the doorway, having a smoke break.

“Yes,” said Klaasen. “I almost miss those scrawny little buggers.”

The unfamiliar term caught Gia’s attention. Brakke reminded her of Brakman. And, until recently, she knew, Brakman had been working here at Special Branch. Pienaar and Klaasen seemed friendly enough, so she decided to risk a question.

“Who were they?” she asked as she rinsed her hands and arms. “The brakke? Did they work here?”

“That’s what we call the werewolves who got fixed,” said Pienaar. “Years ago, when the doctor still worked here in the cages, he used to experiment with curing the weres. Was kind of an obsession with him. Didn’t really work, but he did manage to stall some of them in the human stage permanently. In a way. Poor buggers.” He took a drag at his cigarette. “Some of them just went nuts. It worked better the younger you did it, but for some reason it stunted their growth. Skinny little runts, all of them, but good workers.”

That description certainly fit Brakman. Gia remembered his missing fingernails and the scars where his ears used to be.

“What happened to them?” she asked, although she already guessed the answer. Brakman had told her, after all.

“The purge,” said Pienaar. “Special Branch got rid of all magical staff recently. Supposedly a security risk.”

“Yep. Some things got leaked, that’s what I heard,” said Klaasen. “The Belle Gente just seemed to know a little too much about what was going on in here. Made the high-ups nervous.”

“And now we’re stuck with doing all the slog work ourselves,” said Pienaar. “I hear things are even worse in data capture. Lost a lot of staff up there.”

“But now we have you poor buggers,” said Controller Klaasen with a grin. “So all’s well that end’s well.”

-oOo-

After lunch, the two groups or recruits swapped duties. The group that had been doing data capture training went with Sergeant Kemp to the wolf cages and Gia’s group followed Warrant Officer Naudé to the Annex. The last time Gia had been in this building, was when she had been tested. That felt like another life. Another, different girl had walked here, in these same corridors.

Warrant Officer Naudé led them into a long, windowless room, filled with the hushed hum of air-conditioning. There were four rows of computers and the walls were lined with shelves and filing cabinets. Gia wished she’d thought to put on her long-sleeved jacket. The air was distinctly chilly.

“Each of you take a seat,” said Naudé. “Please don’t touch the computers until you are instructed to do so.”

Naudé was a scrawny man with a receding hairline and a thin moustache. His slouched posture made him look untidy, despite the perfectly ironed creases of his uniform. He glanced rapidly over the group, making notes on a clipboard as the cadets took their seats.

Gia looked curiously at the computer in front of her. She’d used one before, of course, but only during the computer literacy training at school. This machine looked a great deal sleeker and newer than the school computer.

“Right,” said Naudé and pushed up his glasses. “Let’s get going then.” He blinked at them, pursing his lips so that his moustache bunched. “This is the data centre.” He gave a sharp nod. “This is the mind, the brains, the nerve centre of the entire Special Branch operation. This is where we enter, control, test and retrieve data. Information. Results. Evidence. Officers go out on patrol and gather information and here their notes are entered into the database. Civilians and prisoners come to the Annex to be tested and the results of those tests are entered into the database. Undercover operatives make contact and report their findings and that highly volatile information is recorded in the database.”

He nodded significantly. “Yes, indeed. Some top-secret information is handled here in this room. The first thing you will be learning today is how to access the database with your own, unique password. But, before that, you will need to know how to switch your computer on.”

Step by precise step, Naudé showed them how to enter the coded phrase that gave each of them access to the computer system. Then they practised calling up various parts of the database and typing in sequences of words and numbers. The lesson was slow and repetitive, and Gia found it difficult to concentrate. The smells and sights of the wolf cages crowded back into her mind.

What was it like, for the werewolves? Only going out when they were muzzled up and drugged nearly senseless? But maybe they didn’t know any other way of life. Did that make it better, or worse? She wondered why the sight of the cages had upset her so. It was not as though the wolves were innocent, after all. They must have done something to deserve imprisonment. Werewolves were dangerous creatures. Monsters, even. They couldn’t be allowed to just go where they liked, to walk the streets of Cape Town unseen among the real humans.

Real humans. And what are those? She saw again the flash of white feathers bursting out along her mother’s arms, Saraswati’s eyes turning flat and black as she transformed into a swan.

Gia jerked with shock as a hand touched her shoulder.

“Are you stuck with something, cadet?” Warrant Officer Naudé stood over her, peering at the screen.

“Oh. No, sir. I just lost my place.”

“Indeed. This is not place for wool gathering, cadet. We need your full focus here. Now. If you remember the code of the last item you entered, you can do a search for a particular string...”

Gia sat back as he reached for the keyboard. Naudé seemed already to have forgotten his impatience, but she could not afford to annoy any of these officers. She had to be more careful.

“Next exercise,” said Naudé, moving to the front of the room again and picking up a pile of papers. “This is something a bit more complex. On these sheets, you will find a number of different types of information, not just a single list as we had before. You will call up the file in the same way as before, with the BEVUC number stamped at the top of the sheet, but this time you need to check that the information filled in on the paper form corresponds with that on the digital version. As before, you don’t have access rights to correct any discrepancies, but you should create an alert by typing the correct data into the ‘alert’ box in the column on the left...”

Gia took her pile of sheets as they were handed to her and looked them over. These were easier to interpret than the numbers and codes they’d been filling in up to now. Each had a name at the top and then places for other information. Date, age, weight, blood pressure—a whole list of similar details, followed by codes.

Something caught her eye and she flipped back to the first sheet and went through them again.

Botha, Christo Age:10 years, 2 months. Macmillian, Elizabeth Age: 6 years, 9 months. Malan, Nicolene Age:8 years, 1 month.

It was as she’d thought. None of the ages were more than ten. These must be the records of children that had been tested by Special Branch. She had—she counted quickly—ten sheets. And each of the cadets had a similar pack.

How many of these children had tested positive for magical abilities? And what had happened to them then? The answer must be in those codes. Was there some way for her to find out what those meant? Maybe that was the kind of thing that the Belle Gente wanted her to find out for them. In fact, now that she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was supposed to be doing, as their spy.

They’ll let me know, somehow. In the meantime, I can’t do anything that might draw attention. It’s just too dangerous.

-oOo-

The spicy scent of bobotie filled the kitchen. That was good. Nico liked bobotie. Lately, Mandy had been trying to get him to eat all kinds of hard, crispy, cold things such as celery and cucumber. But bobotie was an old favourite. That was the worst thing about being seven years old. Everybody thought they could tell you what to do all the time, what to wear, what to eat. He watched as his father served a steaming spoonful of the yellow food into his plate.

“That enough?” asked Karel.

That enough, that enough. Enuff. E-nouf. Ff. Nico savoured the word, rolling it in his mouth. The “f” sound at the end was like a puff of steam escaping between his lips, tasty, bobotie-scented steam. He caught his father’s raised eyebrows and quickly played back the memory of Karel’s words. That enough? It was a question. Yes. Still blowing the f-sound, he nodded.

But his father’s eyebrows were still raised.

He was supposed to say it too. He swallowed the “f” and said, carefully, “Yes.”

Speaking the words was one of the things his teacher, Miss Winterbach, insisted on.

His father was still looking at him expectantly.

Clearly, he’d left something out. “Thanks!”

Karel smiled and handed him the plate. “It’s a pleasure.”

Karel served a plateful for himself then took his seat. He sat where he always did, across from Nico, which was right and good, but the rest of the table was all wrong. Nico’s mother, Saraswati, should be sitting on the right and Gia should be on the left. Both those chairs were empty. His mother and his sister were gone. For a moment Nico felt the stirring of the old panic, but he remembered Miss Winterbach’s advice. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, if you have to.

He looked down at the tablecloth, focusing on the lines woven into it. The pale blue horizontal lines and the darker vertical lines that crossed one another in such a pleasing, regular way. He thought about Miss Winterbach. He liked her. She helped him make sense of things. She was not as good as the caretaker, but then, nobody was.

When he was with the caretaker, Nico could forget about everything except the thing he was working on. Even Miss Winterbach didn’t make him feel like that. She wanted to make him change himself and that was often uncomfortable. The caretaker never told him how he was supposed to act, or what he was supposed to say. He just showed Nico how to make things. How to use his hands and his mind. And he did it as though Nico already knew these things, just had to be reminded how. It was comforting.

“Nico.” He looked up and saw that his father was holding out his hand. He took a moment to understand.

Oh yes.

This was the thing they did before every meal. Everybody held hands around the table for a few moments, with their eyes closed. “Giving thanks,” was what Karel called it. Nico had always held his mother’s and Gia’s hands. But now they were not there. How would this work? He felt the panic stir again. Karel held out his other hand as well and Nico realised what his father wanted. Both hands. He’d hold both his father’s hands.

“I know this is a bit strange, Nico,” said Karel. “But let’s make the best of it, hey, old man?”

Nico nodded. He watched as his father closed his eyes and bent his head and then looked down at the tablecloth again himself. His knife lay near a vertical line on the tablecloth, at a slight angle to the line. He wanted to straighten it but of course he could not, with Karel holding both his hands. Nico looked at his fork. That was better. It was exactly on top of its line, so that the tines lined up on either side. He liked it like that. If only the knife were straight too. He thought about nudging the knife with his mind, the way the caretaker had shown him. It would be easy. Just that morning, he’d managed to turn a bolt without touching it at all, just by thinking at it and that had required much finer control. Moving something just with his mind had been a good feeling and he wanted to do it again.

But his father had finished saying thanks and released his hands.

“Let’s eat!” said Karel.

-oOo-

Later that evening, Nico lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. The house was so quiet. Karel had read him his bedtime story and gone back down to the studio to finish something he was working on. Nico wished he could go downstairs and sit with his father, but Karel would never allow this. Once the story had been read, he was supposed to sleep.

What happened if he could not sleep? The house felt far too quiet. In the past, he’d hardly ever been alone. If his mother had been away for some reason, Mandy had been there or Gia. In their old home, the one in which they’d lived before they moved here, Mandy used to sleep in a little room at the back and whenever he’d been scared at night, he’d gone and knocked on her door. She’d always let him in and sometimes, if he was lucky, she’d let him crawl into bed with her.

But in their new house there was no place for Mandy to stay, so she went back to her own home every evening.

With surprise, Nico realised that he’d never seen Mandy’s home. He’d not even thought about it as a real place where somebody could go. He wondered how far away it was. Would he be able to link to her while she was there?

He closed his eyes and allowed himself to drop into the half-dreaming state that was best for reaching out for somebody else’s mind. He’d linked with Mandy often before, but only when she was fairly near him.

Would it work?

It was very like moving objects with his mind, the unfocused way he had to think about it, like blurring your eyes, not trying to control too much. Just a gentle reaching, as though he were stretching out towards her.

The sounds came first, a tinny laughter, then some music. A radio, Nico guessed. He could see something now, yellow and brown blurs that quickly came into focus. Mandy’s hands, holding knitting needles and a bundle of yellow wool. She was sitting in an armchair. Several people were in the room with her, a woman and two children and through a door he could see a brightly lit kitchen with more people moving around, making noises that sounded like dishes being washed.

Mandy was happy. That was good. He let the link go and opened his eyes again. It was more difficult to link, these days. He thought it had something to do with all the exercises Miss Winterbach made him do, all the talking she insisted on. When he was younger, he’d been linking almost all the time—only to the people close to him, of course, his mother most of all. He’d hated being dragged out of the link into the normal world, where he’d been forced to look at people from the outside and talk to them with his mouth. It was only recently that he’d started to understand that other people did not do what he did—that even his mother didn’t know where he’d gone when he was linked. She didn’t know about it at all. It still surprised him.

That was difficult to understand. He could go into her head, see what she saw and feel her emotions, but she had not known about it at all.

A sound made him sit up. His bedroom door was opening slowly, the strip of light that fell through from the corridor widening. Then saw that it was only Pouf, pushing the door open. A moment later the cat jumped up onto his bed and he felt the weight of it as it settled on his legs.

Once again he lay back into his pillows and let his mind drift. What was his father doing?

He allowed himself to drop into the link state and soon he heard the buzz and rattle of a sewing machine, saw his father’s hands guiding fabric deftly under the stabbing needle. He felt the exhaustion, the dull worry, felt his father’s shoulders lift and fall as he sighed.

Nico pulled back quickly, breaking the link.

What about Gia? But no. Gia was already asleep. He could tell from the feeling of space in her mind, as though he were in a vast hall. He broke the link again, not wanting to see any of her dreams. Linking with a dreamer could be frightening and he was not ready for that, tonight.

What about his mother?

He stared into the dark, wondering if he dared.

Nobody wanted to talk about it, but he knew what had happened to his mother. He’d seen it happen, after all. The memory of it frightened him and so he’d shut it away. But he wanted to think about his mother too, to try understand what had happened. Maybe he could use what Miss Winterbach had taught him and use the words to handle the memory, just like Mandy used oven mitts to pick up things that were too hot to touch. Maybe words were the same?

“Bird.”

The word left his mouth and floated up toward the ceiling. It had tiny cogs that fit neatly together and whirred round and round. Birrrrrrrd.

“Swan.” White and spreading, a floating ring of smoke, expanding. White curves, white feathers, the graceful curve of a neck.

His mother had turned into a swan. Or— His mother had always been a swan. Which was it? He wasn’t sure. And could he still link to her? That thought left an icy trail behind, making him shiver, half with excitement, half with fear. Instinctively, he knew this was another of those things that were not allowed, like putting your finger into the electric sockets in the walls, or playing with the flame of the gas heater.

Dangerous.

But the thought had taken hold and he could not shake it. If he could link with his mother, it would be like having her back. Being with her again.

His heart beating faster, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself in the way Miss Winterbach had taught him. No good trying to link while his mind was sloshing about like this. He took a deep breath and let it out again. That was better. Another breath.

And then he reached.