SMOKE: Amateur Detective

Originally published: Friday 16 January 2004

Trolling around News24 yesterday I came across a heart-warming little human piece (don't you hate 'em? Mahendra always drags one out at the end of a news bulletin, and it usually involves some rare goose or panda that's been saved, or a kid who has emptied out his piggy bank and given his life savings to some orphan) about some Muldersdrift woman who got her stolen goods back by doing a little detective work.

Apparently the woman and her husband were robbed in the night, called the police and made a complaint. The woman needed a cigarette and drove to a nearby shop to buy some. She noticed a bakkie parked outside the shop and saw the driver staring at her, then noticed that he was wearing gloves - in the middle of summer.

Suspecting her goods were in the bakkie she ran up to it demanding to look inside and the guy and his three accomplices leapt out and ran away after a security guard opened fire on them.

Once the police had been called again (and the same cop arrived, no doubt disgruntled to be dragged out a second time and away from his cosy office and Bigg Juggs Annual '87), the woman noticed a phone number on the door of the bakkie and when she called it reached a guy who hadn't even noticed that his bakkie had been stolen.

The police are now tut-tutting and saying members of the public must leave the police to do their job, but it just goes to show what a little common sense can do for you.

Reading the story reminded me of a detective book I was given as a kid and my dream of one day being a detective. It came with all sorts of instructions on how to take fingerprints (talcum powder and sticky tape), how to compile identikits, crime scene analysis, clue observation, how to encode messages, disguises and apprehension of criminals. I was hooked.

I practiced my new-found observation skills on the domestic front and for a glorious two-week period kept my mother under surveillance (I was convinced she could be a murderer, if that chopping late at night, bits of frozen meat in the freezer and rumblings around the dustbin were anything to go by), but my greatest triumph was discovering the whereabouts of the Stander gang.

It was the early 80s and Andre Stander and his gang of bank robbers right out of 1930s America were ripping up the banks in a nationwide crime spree, and at one stage the big question was: where is the Stander gang?

It was hot gossip over tea, with all manner of speculation and insinuation flying around to the accompaniment of sharp intakes of breath and horrified-yet-thrilled frissons rippling through gatherings of overly-dramatic women.

Everyone had a theory, but I was a detective and paid little mind to the sometime-fantastic rumours that flew hither and thither. I was reasonably confident that Stander and his cronies were hiding out in Lynwood Manor, Pretoria, which is where I lived.

Through a cunning sequence of logical deductions and applied logic, and with appropriate murmers and grunts as I sucked on my imaginary briar (Arthur Conan Doyle helped immensely in defining my image as detective), I narrowed down his whereabouts to Fernwood Rd which, coincidentally, was the road in which I lived.

I had to check out my mother thoroughly first, of course, to be sure she wasn't in on the whole thing. But my undercover stakeout didn't last long as my mother spotted me and ordered me to go and hang out the washing.

Deciding that my mother was no doubt a very dangerous character, but probably not connected to the Stander mystery, I resolved to move my operation to the next phase - following the trail of clues.

Armed with a bag containing sticky tape, talcum powder, blotting paper (you place it on a surface and rub it with a pencil, and if something left an impression on that surface it would show up on the paper), rope (I'd hogtie the bastards when I caught them) and a whole bunch of other necessaries, I set off on my Crime Crusade.

I headed down the road, carefully checking all around me for clues written on scraps of paper (they would have been thrown out of windows by cunning young females as they were held captive in some underground basement, breasts heaving and barely restrained by miniatures of cloth), and made sure to steer well clear of the house where Brutus lived - the most vicious cur ever to patrol a suburban street.

After about five minutes of walking I came to the end of the road, where it curved in a sharp bend to carry on up the hill. On the side of the road at the corner was one of those big grey electricity boxes, which supplies electricity to the whole neighbourhood.

My senses sharpened and my skin tingled, and trusting my detective's intuition I realised that the box before me was no electricity box - it was the perfect size to just accommodate four men.

I debated whether to go in and arrest them myself, but decided rather prudently to step back from the action and allow some common lawmen to earn their keep.

While they were completing the arrests I would be standing to one side, gruffly uttering forth brusque statements to an agog and adoring media.

My head filled with grandeur I hared off home at pace, completely forgetting about Brutus who loved nothing more than a running kid - on his side of the road.

He had a full go at me and managed an ankle tap, but I recovered to grab a stone and Brutus - as stupid and blinded by rage at his own inefficiences as he was - understood stones, and retreated to the safety of his front lawn.

I got home and breathlessly imparted the news to my mother, who told me she was delighted that I'd solved the mystery and would I please go and tidy my room.

The bubble bursts somewhat when the great detective is forced to clean up his pick-up-sticks, but I made sure I diligently recorded the sequence of events that led to my startling discovery in my little black book.

The next day the news broke that Stander had been gunned down in Fort Lauderdale while attempting to steal a car, and I realised he had somehow spotted me and fled in terror. Sad, that - I would have liked to have made the arrest myself.

So there you go - a small kid in 80s Pretoria and a housewife in Muldersdrift both solved heinous crimes through using a little common sense and applying some basic detection skills, and if we were all to keep our eyes and ears open we might well clean up crime, perhaps even by the time the cop has reached the Beaver Hunt section of Bigg Juggs Annual '87.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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