Jassy Mackenzie is the author of Random Violence, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize—Best First Book (Africa region). She has written the second book in the Jade de Jong series, Stolen Lives, as well as a stand-alone thriller, My Brother's Keeper. Jassy lives in Kyalami, Johannesburg, with her partner Dion, two horses and two cats.
by Jassy Mackenzie (Kyalami, South Africa)
I was carjacked at gunpoint in my driveway on a winter morning in July.
It was a beautiful day. Crisp, cold and sunny, as it always is in Johannesburg at that time of year. I'd stopped to pick up the local newspaper lying by the gate and I was sitting in the car, the heater humming and the sun blazing down on the roof, scanning the front page article.
Jo'burg is a dangerous city. Living there comes with a price, and the price is constant vigilance. For a few crucial moments I forgot this fact, and I paid for my mistake. I sensed a movement by the window and had only enough time to think—What are two guys doing beside my car?
Then I saw the leading man's hand was clenched around a steel grey gun. He lifted it and aimed it straight at me. I reacted by doing entirely the wrong thing. I stamped down on the accelerator. All I could think of was the illogical imperative to get away—even though, in the confines of my driveway, "away" was a nonexistent concept, and I had nowhere to go.
In any case, I wasn't fast enough. They stayed with me. The leader yanked open the driver's door, the car stalled with a jolt, and then time telescoped into a cacophony of shouting voices and clutching hands. I was desperate to get out of the driver's door, away from the men with their tight fingers and their unsteady guns. But the hijackers had rehearsed a different maneuver. The other man pulled open the passenger door and wrapped his hands around my throat. I heard myself start gagging, and thought, for one dreadful moment, that he was going to strangle me.
He didn't. He dragged me backwards, fast, across the seats and out of the car. I sprawled butt-first down onto the sandy ground and then, finally, he released me. Leaning forward, he grabbed the gold chain I wore, and ripped it off.
"Where's your rings?" he asked me. "I want your rings."
Breathing hard, I stared up at him. "Do I look like I'm married?" I said incredulously.
The answer seemed to satisfy him. Turning away, he climbed into the car and slammed the passenger door. The engine started up and I heard gears grinding as the driver battled to engage reverse. I wasn't going to wait for him to get it right. I turned my back on the hijackers and walked down the driveway towards my house.
It's a horrible feeling walking away from somebody with a gun. I could feel a burning spot in the centre of my back. I prayed they wouldn't shoot before they drove away.
Memory is a funny thing. By the time I reached my house, I had forgotten most of what had happened. All I could remember, all I could tell people when they asked why my neck was so red, was that my gold chain had been snatched.
The memory came back a few weeks later, unexpectedly, in a terrifying rush. Suddenly I remembered his hands around my throat. God, he'd actually done that to me. I didn't know what was more frightening, the strangulation, or the fact that my mind had blanked it out. What else had I forgotten? Would I find more unwanted memories flooding back?
Nothing came, but in the months following the carjacking, I grew fearful. I lay sleepless at night, listening to the noises outside. A thump on the roof, a rustle in the bushes. Sitting bolt upright in the darkness, my heart pounding, I strained my ears, expecting to hear the splintering of the front door being forced open with a crowbar.
I floored the accelerator if somebody approached my car while I was waiting at an intersection. The risk of an accident seemed small compared to the terror of being on the wrong side of a gun once again.
I started following news stories obsessively, desperate to hear about justice being done. There were plenty of carjackings out there. Plenty of random crimes being committed, but precious few arrests to go along with them. I read with horror about one man who hadn't been as lucky as me. His captors had forced him into the trunk of the car and taken him with them. Police found the car later, burned out, with his charred body still inside.
And then, opening the newspaper one morning, I discovered that the police had cracked the case. They'd arrested a suspect—the murdered man's wife. It turned out that she had organized it all.
That shocking revelation planted the seed of an idea in my mind. How often is violence in South Africa truly random? With our high crime rate and our overworked police force, are criminals able to get away with targeted murders more easily? The police had arrested one killer, but I started to wonder how many more were out there.
Soon after that, I wrote the opening scene of Random Violence. A single woman arrives home at night. She's struggling with a heavy gate when a sleek, dark car pulls up behind her own. The driver climbs out and aims a gun at his victim. He's not a scared novice like my hijackers were. He's calm, cold, experienced. As she begs him for her life, he shoots her twice, a skilled and accurate double-tap. The woman collapses and dies on the stony ground outside her farm gate without knowing who murdered her, or why... Or did she know?
I decided I needed to create a competent female lead to solve this mystery. There were heroines aplenty in the crime fiction I'd read over the years, but when I thought about it more carefully, I realized every leading lady that I could remember was gainfully employed. They might be police detectives, pathologists or lawyers, but they all had good steady jobs and were reasonably normal people.
I wanted to write about somebody different. I wanted a heroine who was a renegade. I wanted a lead who could handle a gun as naturally as breathing, and who had a mysterious past. More than that, I wanted her to have a dark side. As I started to create the character of Jade de Jong, I realized with a chill that I hadn't just created a renegade. I had created a killer.
Jade has some characteristics in common with me. She loves chili, she has a quirky sense of humor, and she displays a regrettable ignorance of local fauna and flora. Although she can tell a Beretta from a Glock at twenty yards in semi-darkness, she wouldn't know an ostrich from a turkey unless it ended up on her dinner plate. And she has other attributes that I don't share, and wouldn't want to.
I often think back to the morning of that carjacking, and I know exactly what Jade would have done if she'd been there. She would have played along until the man was leaning forward to snatch the chain from her neck. That was a tactical error on his part, and she would have taken advantage.
The man would never have touched her necklace. She would have grabbed his arm, yanked him off-balance, pulled him towards her so that he slipped and stumbled in the dirt. A knee in the groin, a jab in the eye, and then she would have had control of his gun.
Would she have killed the two of them? That's a question I often wonder about. They weren't actively trying to murder her, so she might have shown compassion. A bullet through each of their right hands, perhaps. Fired from close-range, punching through flesh and shattering bone. She would have made sure that neither man would ever be able to use a weapon again.
That's life in Jade's Jo'burg. It's a good place to be.
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