I wouldn’t normally stop to pick up a hitchhiker even though, as a teenager, this was just about my only mode of transport. My road to independence.
My Folks didn’t have a car, not that they couldn’t afford one, it was just that my Mom was too nervous to drive and my Dad had always preferred to take public transport or taxi’s to get around. I also think he was too proud to admit that he was also nervous. I’ve also become very nervous lately, particularly when you hear of all the car-jacking and murders that happen just about every day, here in South Africa. You never can be too careful, I say.
As a kid, if I needed to get somewhere, I either cadged a lift from someone whose parents had wheels or I’d hit the road with my thumb wagging.
I’d taken hundreds of short hitches getting in and around the suburbs of Cape Town and on two occasions, even been adventurous enough to hitch hike from Cape Town to Johannesburg and Cape Town to Durban and back. In those days, it was fairly safe to hitchhike and we thought nothing of it.
Around Cape Town, I’d mostly hitchhike with my surfboard tucked under my arm, as I’d found that people tended to stop for surfers more than just some luggage-less stranger on the side of the road. It was as if people believed surfers didn’t have the time for psychotic thoughts, and that robbers, serial killers, and rapists didn’t spend their time chasing waves.
Maybe it was that image, somewhere deep in my subconscious, of me standing there, surfboard tucked under my arm, desperately waiting for a lift, that made me slow down and stop for the tall, well dressed man who’d shown me the thumb as I came around a bend in the N2 highway headed towards my mid-week retreat in Bot River.
As I drove past him, and before consciously deciding to give him a lift, I caught the flash of something tucked under his arm. A book maybe?, I thought as I sped past him. Maybe that’s his Surfboard, I thought, smiling to myself.
The object was about the size of a small shoebox, maybe six inches wide and twelve inches long, a little flatter than a shoebox but roughly the same shape. The noticeable thing about it was its colour which came from being wrapped in some matt black paper that showed small, parallel, shiny spots where the sellotape held it together.
Whatever it was in that black, shoebox sized parcel tucked under his arm, it triggered my curiosity, and I hit the brakes and turned onto the gravel shoulder, a cloud of red dust overtaking me as I stopped for my hitchhiker.
I looked back in the rear-view mirror and saw that he had started walking slowly towards the car, black package gripped tightly under his arm.
I almost put the car into gear and sped off again as a wave of fear hit me. What are you doing? I asked myself. Stopping for a complete stranger with some suspicious looking package under his arm? It could contain a gun or a knife, or the tools of his trade as an axe-murderer or body mutilator, I thought in another panic attack.
I was about to slip the handbrake and speed off when I glanced over my left shoulder and saw that he’d disappeared from view. Maybe he’d taken another ride or just slipped away quietly into the bushes?
A sharp rap on my driver’s window made me jump in my seat.
He stooped to the window level where I could see his almost toothless mouth miming off words without sounds. I dropped the window a few inches. He was well dressed, I must admit with his funereal black suit and neatly folded handkerchief in his top pocket. Almost like he’d come from a wedding or a funeral I thought.
And big! I estimated that he must be at least six and a half foot as he had to almost bend double to look into the car. I must say that in my 53 years, I haven’t seen too many Black South Africans of that size.
“Good morning Sir,” he said smiling. A good start I thought. I always liked manners in men and his regal greeting allowed me to drop the window another few inches.
“May I ask how far you’re going Sir?” he continued, still smiling his patchy, broken-toothed smile. I could smell his breath coming in through the window and I half turned away from the musty, almost compost like smells that were wafting in to the car.
“I’m going as far as exit 92, the Bot River turn off,” I replied.
“ I don’t mind that at all Sir,” he said brightly and darted, most deliberately around the front of the car and before you could say “Mary Martha”, he was seated next to me in the passenger seat, the Black shoebox now perched proudly on his lap.
I think that if he’d gone round the back of the car, I might have slipped the hand brake and floored the accelerator and got out of there pretty damn quickly.
It was the “Yes-No’s” that were making me nervous. I hated indecision and people who pussyfooted around. I saw black and I saw white. I saw full or I saw empty. I hated anything in between. As someone once said to me, you either push or you pull, you never mess around in between.
And here I was, messing around in between.
Yes, I stopped.
No, he has a black box and might use whatever’s inside it to kill me, or worse.
Yes, he’s smartly dressed.
No, he’s coming towards the car.
Yes, he’s gone and run off into the bush.
No, He’s at the window.
Yes, he greeted me nicely.
No, his breath smelled like something had crawled in there and died.
Whatever happened now, it had to be positive; I’d offered a lift, he’d accepted and had firmly planted himself in the passenger seat next to me. Now all I had to do was get him to where he needed to be, drop him off, and remember never to pick up hitchhikers ever again.
I heard his seatbelt click into place.
“How far are you going?” I asked as I pulled away from the gravel onto the tarmac.
“As far as Sir would like to take me”. He replied, looking straight ahead and gripping tightly onto the black box, now neatly tucked inside the seatbelt straps. Obviously, whatever was inside his box was fragile and he didn’t want a sudden jerk or swerve to send it flying onto the floor.
That made me feel a little more comfortable, after all, what could be so fragile that could also be used as a murder weapon? I thought to myself smiling.
That’s it! A bottle. A bottle of poison maybe, or acid, Yes, sulphuric acid to throw in my eyes and blind me whilst he tied me down and poured the rest slowly into every orifice in my body. When he’d used up my orifices, he’d probably use the acid to carve out a new one! My God! That’s exactly what he’s got, I thought, looking ahead to see if there were any other motorists pulled over on the side of the road who could help me get away from this maniac.
It could also be chloroform? I panicked. Yes, as I stop the car he’ll turn his back towards me and soak his neatly folded white hanky with the stuff and then, using his sheer size, hold me down with the hanky over my nose until I lost consciousness! What he’d do next wouldn’t bother me if I was unconscious but I had this feeling that he’d bring me round and I’d find myself tied to some farm gate or fence as he slowly and carefully peeled the skin off my entire body!
Oh my God!, what have I got myself into this time?
“Would Sir mind if I rested a while. I haven’t really slept these last few days Sir, what with everything that’s been going on Sir.” He interrupted my thoughts.
“If Sir wouldn’t mind nudging me about ten minutes before your turn off, I’d appreciate that Sir.” He continued before reaching out for the lever and reclining the seat to the maximum. His hand rested firmly on top of the black box.
I felt really uncomfortable now, specially as his head was out of my line of sight, behind my back. I glanced back at the hitchhiker to find his eyes wide open and staring at me.
“Sir would do better to keep his eyes on the road Sir would,” he said quietly. “Nasty accidents can happen like that. Before you know it, you’re lying dead on the side of the road, all for the sake of taking your eyes off the road for no more than a second.” He said firmly.
“My Uncle Sipho went that way, he did. Travelling in his pick up from Caledon to Cape Town and he just took his eyes off the road for a second. Next thing, he’s being ground into mince underneath a big logging truck and trailer. Yes Sir, a split second is all it takes to snuff the life out of you.”
My eyes locked onto the road in front of the car as I sat frozen with fear trying to interpret and understand what he’d just said to me. “A split second to snuff the life out of me!” He was obviously trying to get me to stop looking at him so that he could get to work inside that little black box of his, uncovering whatever it was he was going to use to “Snuff the life out of me!”
Maybe he was studying the back of my head or my neck, looking for the perfect pressure points to immobilise me before doing his dirty deeds?
I could feel his eyes burning into the back of my neck, smell his breath as he salivated, deep in thought over the brief moments of sadistic pleasure he was soon to experience.
Maybe it’s a syringe? A glass phial of some potent anaesthetic, which would leave me conscious but unable to move or scream out for help!
I glanced back at my most unwelcome passenger only to see that he had indeed closed his eyes and his mouth hung open, expelling a foul, shit like odour.
Maybe he’s bluffing, I thought. Maybe he’s just trying me out to see what I’m going to do now that I’ve worked out his well thought out plan.
I decided to test him and reached slowly down between my legs to the floor of the car.
My hand reached back, searching.
I always kept a couple of tools in my car ever since I found myself stranded on the side of the road late one night, only needing one small screwdriver to tighten a hose that had leaked all of the water out of my radiator.
They were there somewhere, I thought to myself, chin now touching the steering wheel and hand stretched far back under my seat in my desperate effort to secure the only chance of survival.
“Looking for this Sir, are we?” boomed the voice right next to my ear. He was holding the familiar soft plastic case containing the set of four screwdrivers I’d bought just for this sort of emergency.
“Yes, yes thank you,” I said reaching out to grab the case.
He snatched it back towards his chest.
“Now Sir, Sir must make me a promise before I give Sir his tools, Sir Must,” he said teasingly.
“Sir must promise to drive carefully and not to take his eyes off the road or to be doing anything he might regret doing later, Sir,” he said, holding the screwdriver set just out of my reach.
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. It’s just that I knew I had that set somewhere and you never know when you might need them in an emergency” I proffered.
“So long as Sir’s not thinking of doing anything silly with them that’s OK,” he said pushing the plastic case firmly into my left hand.
“Yes Sir, my Uncle Sipho always said that people worry about picking up a Hitchhiker but no one tells us hitchhikers to worry about the drivers now, do they Sir? We have to be very careful you know. If you read about those Yorkshire rippers and Ted Bundy’s and the likes, you’ll see, it’s us hitchhikers who’s the ones that ought to be careful who we take lifts with.”
I heard the lever on his seat put him back into the reclining position. I was sure he was watching my every move now, just to be sure that I’d be keeping my promises.
I shuffled the screwdriver set over into the side pocket of my door and put both hands on the steering wheel. I wanted him to feel that I was satisfied in finding it and then putting it to rest.
By leaning forward slightly, I could move my head enough to get his face into my rear-view mirror.
Satisfied that he had indeed nodded off, I slowly used my right hand to open the soft plastic case containing the screwdrivers. The one I needed was the largest one, in the far right pocket. It was about ten inches in length with a carefully machined “star” blackened into it’s tip. “Chrome Vanadium,” was clearly marked on the label, and the Salesman had assured me they’d last me a lifetime. I slipped it out and then under my right leg, ready to grab it when I needed it.
The 40km to Bot River sign passed and I quickly worked out that I had another twenty minutes or so before this madman pounced. If I was to survive, I needed to have everything planned, needed to be one step ahead of my Hitchhiker.
I ran it through in my mind, working everything out down to the last second. The element of surprise had to be in my favour, not his. There he was, pretending to sleep in the passenger seat, smiling his rotting, toothless grin, thinking that he’d found yet another unsuspecting victim. Little did he know that I had worked out his evil little plan!
A short time later, the 20 km sign popped up and I was about to nudge my wannabe attacker when his voiced croaked, “ Well Sir, I reckon that’s about ten minutes now before you’d be dropping me then. If you could just pull into the picnic spot just before your turnoff, I’ll be getting me a lift easier from there.”
Again, I froze, my hands gripping the wheel so hard that I’m sure my attacker must have seen my whitening knuckle’s. I eased my grip and told myself to be calm and to be totally unpredictable. Catch him off guard.
I looked left and noticed that he was still reclined in the seat. Then I heard the paper.
The box was wrapped in black paper and I found myself wondering what sort of person goes into a shop and buys black wrapping paper? What sort of sick person actually goes out of is way to buy such a thing? A Madman! A sick perverted, psychotic Madman, that’s who! A man so bent on fulfilling his dirtiest, wildest perversions that he has to have everything just right, even down to the morbid black wrapping paper to cover his butcher’s toolbox!
I had to think quickly now. Time was ticking away and the final confrontation was minutes away.
I could hear the paper rustling and this just made me even tenser.
O.K. now calm down, I told myself.
This is how it’s going to go.
He’s obviously going to open the door – the space in the front of the car is not enough for a man of his size to move around in.
He’ll have his back to me as he fumbles with his acid/chloroform/anaesthetic/poison, getting ready to turn around and pin me down, posing me for his stunning shots.
That’s when I’d have to strike. As his back is arched, I’d reach under my leg, grab the screwdriver, and pull my hand back as far as possible. Thrust forward, hard and deep, aiming for two feet beyond to make sure it goes in deep enough. Hit hard, just below the left shoulder blade, pushing through the lungs and piercing his heart. Pull it out. Stab it back in, this time a few inches lower, just in case. At this stage, he’ll probably fall backwards into the car. Strike again, only this time plunging the screwdriver deep into the centre of his chest, just below the rib cage. That should finish him off, once and for all!
“I couldn’t help but notice Sir looking here at my box.” He chirped, interrupting my foolproof plan.
“Sir probably wants to know what I have here in this box doesn’t Sir now?” he asked.
“No, no, really, what’s yours, is your business” I replied, thinking that he was getting some sort of sadistic pleasure out of his teasing and torturing. Have your fun and games whilst you think you’re one step ahead of me, I thought. I’ll just dig a little deeper with the Chrome Vanadium tipped screwdriver when it comes to my turn to show you who’s on top of this situation!
“Sir’ll remember my telling him about my Uncle Sipho, does Sir?” he asked.
Oh God, not another lecture about keeping my hands on the wheel? Humour him, I thought. He thinks that I’m the one with a few minutes left to live. Think again, Shitbreath!
“Well Sir, when my Uncle Sipho died, that was about two years ago Sir, and at that time, we had barely enough money in the family to cover the cost of getting his wreck towed away and, being of lowly farming stock Sir, we were not in a position to pay the undertakers up front.
Now, my Uncle Sipho loved this land and had worked it from a boy until he died at the young age of 59, Sir.” He waffled.
“Well Sir, now Uncle Sipho always said he’d want his mortal remains to lie on the land, there on the farm in Caledon, but not having the money and all, the best we could do was to ask the undertakers to hang onto him until we could afford to bring him back, Sir. But Sir will know, the cost of keeping the body there at the morgue would mean we’d never pay off the debt and so I had no other choice Sir.”
So, the motive is robbery, I thought. Kill and rob the victims for the sole purpose of paying off Sipho’s Undertakers so that they could get his body back to Caledon! My God, what a reason to die!
I noticed at this time that my hitchhiker had lifted the corner of the lid on his box and had his hand inside, ready to strike with whatever weapon he’d chosen for this evil deed.
The lay-by came into view and I struggled between keeping my eye on the road, my right hand on the screwdriver and my mind on my plan to strike first. He wasn’t going to give me that opportunity and was already poised, hand on weapon, ready to strike as soon as the car ground to a halt.
I slowed down to turn into the lay-by, hand ready, ready to strike.
The car had almost stopped and I gripped the screwdriver until it hurt.
The car stopped and I lunged forward, bringing the screwdriver round in an arc that met resistance only when the handle hit up against the bone of his temple.
His eyes went glassy and he looked at me questioningly, not sure quite what had just happened.
His hand was coming out of the box now and I yanked the screwdriver out, swung it back, this time, plunging it to the hilt in his neck, just above the collarbone.
“I think my Uncle Sipho was right Sir, you have to be very careful who you take a lift with now don’t you Sir?” he mumbled as his eyes finally glassed over and the light went out of them.
The hitchhikers hand had popped out of the box and I finally un-tensed enough to look down to see what evil weapon would have been my undoing had I not seen through his cunning little plan.
The hand was opening slowly as the life ebbed out of his muscles and, like coarse sea salt, I watched as the grey, cremated remains of Uncle Sipho, poured through the hitchhikers fingers onto the centre console of the car.