Maverick Life


‘You must go somewhere no one expects you to go’ — read an excerpt from ‘A Big Hand for the Spirits’ by Jennifer Stern

‘You must go somewhere no one expects you to go’ — read an excerpt from ‘A Big Hand for the Spirits’ by Jennifer Stern
Photo: The Reading List / Supplied

‘A Big Hand for the Spirits,’ Jennifer Stern’s first novel, explores the space where science, religion and magic meet, where the world behaves in ways that are at once quite normal and utterly astonishing.

Stern is a seasoned non-fiction writer, whose books include Southern Africa on a Budget and Farmstall to Farmstall. A Big Hand for the Spirits is her first foray into fiction, drawing heavily on her travels and her experience teaching diving in Malawi.

In the book, an ecologist on the run from a hitman joins up with a brilliant physicist struggling to reconcile his traditional African beliefs with his profession, an anaesthetist dealing with a bad marriage, a physically powerful but emotionally distraught river guide, and an enigmatic recovering drug addict who alternates wildly between reality and fantasy. 

Together they travel overland from Victoria Falls to Malawi, working together to survive, and discover they are connected in unexpected ways.

Read the excerpt below.


Leading off a big lab, Casey’s office was cluttered, but in an organised way. Two scuba cylinders stood in the corner, and a wetsuit and BC hung behind the door. A glass tank containing three beautiful, bright green boomslangs took up most of one short wall. Directly opposite was a scuffed wooden desk, covered in files and books – seemingly in some sort of order. The long wall between them supported a countertop on which sat a computer, a few electron microscope images, a couple of photocopied journal articles, and a number of pretty tins filled with pens, pencils and other arbitrary stationery supplies, most of which looked rather antiquated. Above the computer hung a poster of Escher’s Drawing Hands, the one hand constantly recreating the other in a beautifully balanced, but slightly disturbing, embrace.

Casey stood in front of her computer, fiddling, hopping from one foot to another. She was more agitated than usual. She just couldn’t seem to stand still. She walked out of the office into the lab and returned cradling a small box with four white mice in it. She stroked them, opened the glass case and, holding them by their tails, gently dropped them into the snake cage one by one. She sat down at the long countertop at right angles to her desk and logged on to her computer. As she sat staring, waiting for it to boot up, there was a knock at the door. She looked up, startled.

‘It’s open,’ she said, swivelling her chair all the way round to sit at the desk facing the door.

Two men, dressed in plain clothes but with ‘policeman’ virtually tattooed across their foreheads, walked in.

‘Dr Coetzee?’ asked one.

‘Yes,’ she replied, waving them to the two rather scruffy chairs that were usually used by students.

‘I’m Inspector Ntabeni, Murder and Robbery,’ he continued as he sat, his squat, beefy bulk filling the space. ‘And this is Detective Van der Walt, Narcotics,’ he added, including the smaller man with a gesture. ‘Do you have a moment, Dr Coetzee? We need to talk about yesterday’s incident.’

‘OK,’ Casey nodded.

While Ntabeni continued, his sidekick stared, fascinated, as the snakes started to stalk the mice behind Casey.

‘It’s about Miss Summerfield, Dr Coetzee. Are you sure it was her?’

‘Definitely,’ Casey said. ‘I’d recognise her anywhere.’

‘How well do you know her?’

‘Pretty well, but only from races.’ Casey pointed out a photograph on her pinboard. In it, she was just ahead of Claudia crossing the finish line of a triathlon. ‘We compete in the same class. Have you found her? What was she doing there, anyway, and …’

Ntabeni interrupted her, shaking his head. ‘She’s left the country. She caught a plane to Paris yesterday morning and then we lost track of her. She must have moved really fast.’

‘Oh. OK. But what was that all about? I mean you got the body, didn’t you? Do you know who the guy is?’

‘We think so, but we can’t be sure. He’s a bit … well, it’s not easy to identify him. It’s a pity you didn’t get the registration number of the car,’ Ntabeni said.

‘Oh well, excuse me for not stopping to take notes,’ Casey snapped. ‘Perhaps I should have popped inside for my camera.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Ntabeni said, hastily. ‘You’ve done very well to get the information you have.’ He was trying for conciliatory but only managed condescending.

‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ Casey was furious and only seconds away from making it very clear.

‘Oh, no, Dr Coetzee. We definitely do believe you. We’ve been watching Miss Summerfield for some time.’

This helped to get her blood pressure down a few points. ‘Why? And why does she go around killing people?’

‘I’m afraid we can’t tell you that.’

‘Oh great. I’m the one who gets shot at and you can’t tell me what it’s all about. Fine, well just fuck off out of my office then and find the answers to your own fucking questions.’ Casey was not one of those women who look beautiful when they’re angry. Her already thin, rather pointy face became tighter, her lips went thin and pale, and her usually bright, lively grey eyes darkened to the colour of the ring around her iris – almost black.

Ntabeni shrunk back in his chair about a centimetre, not quite knowing how to continue. Van der Walt dragged his attention away from the snakes and spoke for the first time.

‘I’m sorry Dr Coetzee,’ he said. ‘I can’t tell you much, but it seems that Miss Summerfield is someone we’ve been looking for for a long time – Blondie. The leader of New Kids on the Block. But we can’t be sure.’

Casey’s temper vanished as quickly as it had erupted. ‘I’ve read about them in the paper. But I thought Blondie was a man. And who is the dead guy?’ Her eyes shone with interest and reverted to their usual soft, smoky grey, the dark ring outlining her iris.

‘We all did,’ Ntabeni was getting a lot better at the conciliatory tone. He was learning fast.

‘We think the deceased is a small-time drug dealer,’ Van der Walt said. ‘He maybe double-crossed her.’ He was a bit more user-friendly than his companion.

‘These are the Sweet Sixteen people, aren’t they?’ Casey asked. She couldn’t help smiling when she was interested in something – and her mind moved so fast that her interest grew and waned as quickly as the colour of her eyes changed. And when Casey smiled she was – not beautiful, Casey could never be beautiful – entrancing. Her face betrayed her every emotion, and it was almost impossible not to respond to her smile.

‘But why Claudia?’ she continued, firing questions off in rapid succession. ‘She’s filthy stinking rich, isn’t she?’

‘We’re not sure,’ Van der Walt replied, concentrating only on Casey’s first question.

‘But we think so,’ Ntabeni continued. ‘We think Miss Summerfield controls the whole market. Perhaps that’s how she got so rich.’ He had been studiously watching Casey’s face all this time, but he couldn’t help looking at the sudden movement behind her. He flinched and looked straight back at Casey.

‘And we would love to get our hands on her,’ Van der Walt continued, his eyes flicking to the cage, where the first unlucky mouse was being swallowed in short, rhythmic undulations. ‘She’s very clever, though. So far she is absolutely clean.’

‘So now what? Now can you prosecute her? Or what?’

‘We can, yes. Once we find her we can prosecute her for murder. But ’til then …’ Van der Walt’s tone made it clear that it wasn’t that simple.

‘So now what? I mean this doesn’t really have anything to do with me anymore, does it? What’s your next move?’

‘Well, um. Dr Coetzee,’ Ntabeni was talking very sweetly now. ‘You are sure she recognised you? Is there somewhere you can go? A friend. Perhaps in Joburg or … or the Kalahari?’

‘Where no one can find you,’ Van der Walt added, flinching again, as his eyes flicked to the right, focusing on the glass case again.

‘What do you mean?’ Casey was beginning to get the picture, but was refusing to believe what she thought they were saying.

‘Dr Coetzee, if we find Miss Summerfield, we can almost certainly convict her on – oh at least manslaughter or accessory to a murder,’ Van der Walt said. ‘On your testimony.’


‘If you’re not around to testify,’ Ntabeni said with far more pleasure than was seemly, ‘she will almost certainly get off.’

‘What are you saying? You’ve got my statement.’

‘I’m afraid we’d need you to testify if we are going to convict her.’

‘Well, I don’t want to. I don’t want any of this. You deal with it; it’s your job, not mine.’

‘I’m afraid Miss Summerfield doesn’t know that. She’ll be pretty sure you will testify,’ Van der Walt said – gently. He could sense Casey was close to another temper tantrum, and he wasn’t very comfortable around angry women. Not that angry, anyway.

‘C’mon. You’re not saying…’ Casey just stared at them for a few moments, trying to come to terms with what she knew they were trying to tell her. ‘Normal people don’t do things like that. I don’t want any part in it.’

‘You don’t have a choice,’ Van der Walt continued. ‘And normal people don’t torture and kill other people and stuff them into the boots of cars. I’m afraid you just have to accept that there are some rather nasty people out there who really do want you dead.’

‘So what do I do?’ Casey asked, all her aggression and bravado long forgotten, and her eager interest at the thought of a new mystery rapidly dissolving in real fear.

‘You must go somewhere no one expects you to go,’ Van der Walt replied.

‘Soon,’ Ntabeni added. ‘Or you can go on a witness protection programme.’

‘What? Like where you have plastic surgery and move to a farm in South America? No way.’

‘No,’ that’s American TV stuff,’ Van der Walt said, smiling. ‘But it’s not much fun. We find you a safe house, and you stay there until after the trial.’

‘But that’s not much use. Anyone could follow me there from work, or follow my friends, or …’

‘Aaah. That’s where you’re wrong. You won’t go to work. And your friends won’t know where you are. It really is not much fun at all.’

‘No way,’ Casey interjected. ‘That’s like being in jail. Who’s the criminal here, after all?’

‘Personally, I suggest a nice bush camp in the Kalahari,’ Van der Walt continued, having learned in a short time to ignore half of Casey’s outbursts.

‘I was considering going to Malawi in a couple of weeks to help two of my students with some fieldwork,’ Casey said, half under her breath, her anger forgotten. ‘I could go sooner if I could get someone to do my lectures for me – just for two weeks. Lectures end first week in November.’

‘I suggest you do,’ Van der Walt said. ‘But don’t fly there direct. Fly somewhere else – I dunno, Zimbabwe or Zambia. Or even Tanzania – and then catch a bus or something. Don’t leave a paper trail. Do you have a cell phone?’

‘Uhm. Yes, I’ve just got one. But I don’t use it much.’

‘Leave it behind – it won’t work north of the Limpopo anyway. And don’t rent a car. Don’t use your credit card.’

‘Surely they wouldn’t have access to that kind of information?’ Casey thought this was a bit much.

‘Don’t underestimate these people,’ Ntabeni said, grimacing as he glanced past Casey. He looked away from the cage, straight at her. ‘They are very, very powerful.’

The police officers got up to go.

‘And very, very evil,’ Van der Walt added, taking one last glance into the tank.

‘Thank you. Um. Thank you,’ Casey said, all of a sudden very uncertain.

‘Take care,’ Ntabeni said, handing her a card.

Van der Walt turned in the doorway. ‘Don’t forget. No paper trail – don’t use your credit card.’

After they had gone, Casey sat at her desk, staring at the closed door. Behind her, a boomslang started swallowing the mouse it had just killed – its tiny body forming a smooth lump as it travelled down the bright green throat. The fourth mouse sat near a bare branch, frozen into terrified immobility. DM

A Big Hand for the Spirits by Jennifer Stern is published by Naledi (R275). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 


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