Brainy Hooker, Nice Price*

1 THE CLIENT

One thing about being a private investigator, you’ve got to learn to go with your hunches. That’s why when a moegoe named Frikkie Wordsworth walked into my office and laid his cards on the table, I should have trusted the cold chill that shot up my spine.

‘Baksteen?’ he said. ‘Baksteen van der Merwe?’

‘That’s what it says on my door,’ I conceded.

‘You’ve got to help me, man. I’m being blackmailed. Please!’ He was shaking like the breasts on a dancing Zulu maiden. I pushed a glass across my desk and the bottle of Klippies I keep handy for medicinal purposes.

‘Just relax and tell me all about it.’

‘You … you won’t tell my wife?’

‘Come clean with me, Frikkie. I can’t make any promises.’

He tried pouring a drink, but you could hear the clicking sound on the other side of Voortrekker Road, and most of the stuff wound up in his lap.

‘I’m in business,’ he said. ‘Vuvuzela marketing. We import from China. Distribution round the Cape, townships, that sort of thing. Not bad business since the World Cup. Lotsa whites buying too.’

‘So?’

‘Different colours. We’re going artistic with the designs.’

‘Get to the point.’

‘I’m on the road a lot. Beaufort West, Mossel Bay, Knysna. You know how it is, can get a bit lonely. Oh no, it’s not what you’re thinking. See, Baksteen, I’m basically an intellectual. Sure, a guy like me can meet all the airheads he wants – Caprice, Wafu, La Med. But the really brainy women, they’re not so easy to find at short notice.’

‘Keep talking.’

‘Well, I heard of this young girl. Eighteen years old. A BA student from Stellenbosch. For a price, she’ll come over and discuss any subject – the contemporary South African novel, San rock art, Booker Prize nominations. Exchange of ideas. You see what I’m driving at?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘I mean my wife is great, don’t get me wrong. But she won’t discuss JM Coetzee with me. Or Eugene Marais. I didn’t know that when I married her. See, I need a woman who’s mentally stimulating, Baksteen, and I’m willing to pay for it. I don’t want any involvement, just a quick intellectual experience, then I want the girl to leave. Christ, Baksteen, I’m a happily married man!’

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Six months. Whenever I have that craving, I call Lolly. She’s the madam, with a masters in 20th-century lit. Goes both ways: English and Afrikaans. She sends me an intellectual babe, see?’

So he was one of those guys whose weakness was really clever women. I felt sorry for the ou. I figured there must be a lot of men in his position, who were starved for a little intellectual communication with the opposite sex and would pay through the nose for it.

‘Now she’s threatening to tell my wife,’ he said.

‘Who is?’

‘Lolly. They bugged the City Lodge hotel room. They’ve got tapes of me discussing Orgie and White Writing, and, well, really getting into some issues. They want fifty grand or they go to Janine. Baksteen, you’ve got to help me! Janine would die if she knew she didn’t turn me on up here.’

The old prostitute con. I’d heard rumours that the detectives at Caledon Square were onto something involving a group of educated women, but so far they’d hit a brick wall.

‘Get Lolly on the phone for me.’

‘What?’

‘I’ll take your case, Frikadel. I charge R1500 a day, plus expenses. You’ll have to sell a lot of vuvuzelas.’

‘It won’t be fifty grand’s worth,’ he said with a grin. Then he picked up the phone and dialled Lolly. I took it from him and winked. I was beginning to like him.

2 THE SETUP

Seconds later, a sultry voice answered, and I told her what was on my mind. ‘I understand you can set me up with an hour of good chat,’ I said.

‘Sure, darling. What do you have in mind?’

‘I’d like to discuss Olive Schreiner.’

The Story of an African Farm, Undine or  Trooper Peter Halket?’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘The price. That’s all. Seminal texts are extra.’

‘What’ll it set me back?’

‘Five hundred, maybe 750 for The Story of an African Farm. You want a comparative discussion: Schreiner and Marlene van Niekerk – the evolution of the plaasroman? That could be arranged for a grand.’

‘The money’s not a problem,’ I told Lolly and gave her the number of a room at the Breakwater Lodge.

‘You want blonde, brunette or someone a little … darker?’

‘Surprise me,’ I said, and hung up.

That evening in the hotel room I shaved, dabbed on a splash of Old Spice and downed a dinky bottle of Jack from the mini-bar. Then I trawled Wikipedia, Litnet and Book SA on my blackberry to try and get up to speed. Who knew where the conversation might lead? Hardly an hour had passed before there was a knock at my door. I opened and standing there was a young blonde, beautiful in her own way.

‘Hi, I’m Mary-Anne.’ They really knew how to appeal to your fantasies: long stringy hair, flat-chest, dark rings under the eyes, no make-up, a bag bulging with books.

‘I’m surprised you weren’t stopped, walking into the hotel dressed like that,’ I said. ‘The security guys can usually spot an intellectual.’

‘A fifty normally helps them look the other way.’

‘Shall we begin?’ I said, motioning her to the bed. She got right down to it. ‘I think we could start by looking at how Schreiner uses the character of Waldo to explore her own disillusionment with Christianity.’

‘That’s why Waldo’s death is so tragic: he can find no redemption.’ I was bluffing. I wanted to see if she’d go for it.

‘No, don’t you feel that through his free-thinking mysticism, he finds a kind of salvation in Nature, what Schreiner calls the Universal Unity?’

‘Right, right. God, you’re right,’ I murmured.

‘I think Schreiner is leaning heavily on Herbert Spencer’s First Principles to underpin Waldo’s spiritual development.’ I let her go on. She was barely 21 years old, but already she had developed the hardened facility of the pseudo-intellectual. She rattled off her ideas glibly, but it was all mechanical. Whenever I offered an insight, she faked a response: ‘Oh yes, Baksteen. Yes! That’s deep. A post-Darwinian take on Nature – why didn’t I see it before?’ We talked for about an hour and then she said she had to go. She stood up and I paid her.

‘Thanks, sweetheart,’ she said.

‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’

‘What are you trying to say?’ I had piqued her curiosity. She sat down on the bed again.

‘Suppose I wanted to have a party?’ I said.

‘Like, what kind of a party?’

‘Suppose I wanted Homi Bhabha explained to me by two girls?’

‘Oh, wow.’

‘If you’d rather forget it –’

‘You’d have to speak to Lolly,’ she said. ‘It’ll cost you big bucks.’ Now was the time to nail her. I flashed my private-investigator’s badge and told her it was a bust.

‘What!?’

‘I’m with the cops, honey, and discussing Schreiner for cash will land you in the tjoekie.’

‘You bastard!’

‘Better come clean, Mary-Anne. Unless you want to tell your story to Captain Ndlovu down at Caledon Square.’

She began to cry. ‘Don’t turn me in, Baksteen,’ she said. ‘I needed the money to complete my masters. I’ve been turned down for a bursary. Twice. I’m the wrong colour. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck!’

It all poured out, the whole story. Southern suburbs upbringing, English Olympiad, Grahamstown festivals year in and year out. She was every chic you saw waiting in line at the Labia, in earnest conversation about a new Damon Galgut novel at the Woodstock Lounge or pencilling the words ‘Yes, yes!’ into the margin of Portrait with Keys. It’s just that somewhere along the line this girl made a wrong turn.

‘My dad wanted me to do a BComm. I needed cash to keep going with lit. A friend said she knew a married guy whose wife wasn’t very profound. He was into the Sestigers. She couldn’t hack it. I said sure, for a price I’d talk Ingrid Jonker with him. I was nervous at first. I faked a lot of it. He didn’t care. My friend said there were others. Oh, I’ve been bust before. I got caught reciting Stephen Watson in a parked car at Rhodes Memorial, and I was once stopped and frisked at the Cape Town Book Fair. Once more and I’m really in the shit.’

‘Then take me to Lolly.’

She bit her lip, took a deep breath, and said, ‘The Book Lounge is a front.’

‘Yes?’

‘Like those adult shops that have a back door for extras, know what I mean?’

I made a quick call on my cell to Caledon Square and put the boys in blue in the picture. Then I said to her, ‘Okay, you’re off the hook, for now. But don’t leave town.’

‘Stellenbosch library?’

‘Ja, okay, but not over Sir Lowry’s Pass, got it?’

She gratefully tilted up her face towards mine. ‘I can get you photographs of Alan Paton reading,’ she said.

‘Some other time, honey.’

3 LOLLY’S

I walked into the Book Lounge. The man behind the desk came over to me, a big chap with a beard and corduroy jacket, leather patches on the sleeves. ‘Can I help you?’ he said.

‘I’m looking for The Poetics of Space. I think the bloke’s name is Bachelor or Butcher –’

‘Bachelard, Gaston. French philosopher. Been very popular with the lady students of late. I’ll have to check if we have any left in stock.’

I fixed him with a look. ‘Mary-Anne sent me,’ I said.

‘Oh, in that case, go downstairs to the basement and through to the back.’ He pressed a button. I found my way past the children’s literature section and into a corridor. Suddenly a wall of books opened, and I walked like a lamb into the bustling pleasure palace known as Lolly’s. Red wallpaper and Victorian decor set the tone. Pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses and unkempt hair sat primly on sofas, riffling Penguin Classics provocatively. A black woman with a big smile, possibly Congolese, winked at me. Nodding towards a room at the back, she said, ‘Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, eh?’

But it wasn’t only intellectual experiences on offer. They were peddling emotional ones, too. For R500, I learned, you could ‘relate without getting close.’ For a thousand, a girl would lend you her back copies of Carapace, have dinner at the Hussar Grill, and then let you cuddle her on the couch while watching faded Athol Fugard videos. For R1500, you got the works: a mousy blonde would pretend to pick you up at DVD Nouveau, let you read her masters thesis, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Rafikis over Andre Brink’s representation of women, and then fake a suicide at Three Anchor Bay – the perfect evening, for some guys.

‘Like what you see?’ a voice said behind me. I turned and found myself standing face to face with the business end of a .38. It was Lolly. The voice was the same, but Lolly was a man. His face was hidden by a mask.

‘You’ll never believe this,’ he said, ‘but I don’t even have a university degree. I was thrown out for bad attendance. Too much Nusas and Shawco, not enough Chaucer.’

‘Why the mask?’

‘Habit. I’ve played many writers in my time. I once devised a complicated scheme to take over New Contrast, but it meant I had to pass for Hugh Hodge. I went to Durban for an operation. There’s a doctor in Ballito who gives people Hugh’s features – for a price. Something went wrong. I came out looking like Lionel Abrahams, with Helen Moffett’s voice. That’s when I started working the other side of the law.’

Quickly, before he could tighten his finger on the trigger, I went into action. Heaving forward, I snapped my elbow across his jaw and grabbed the gun as he fell back. He hit the ground like a ton of bricks. He was still whimpering when the cops showed up.

‘Nice work, Baksteen,’ said Captain Ndlovu. ‘When we’re through with this guy, the Fraud Service boys wants to have a talk with him. A little matter involving the annotated manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom. What scum! Take him away.’

Later that night, I looked up an old client of mine named Charlize. She was blonde and from the Free State. She had graduated with distinction, the only difference being that her major was in physical education – more my thing.

* Adapted from ‘The Whore of Mensa’ by Woody Allen in Without Feathers

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