The Zero Hour – Excerpt

Prisoner number 322/88-he was known to the prison authorities as Baumann, though that was not his name at birth-had been planning this day with meticulous precision for quite some time.

He rose from bed very early and, as he did every morning, peered through the narrow barred window at the verdant mountainside that glittered emerald in the strong South African sunlight. Turning his gaze, he located the tiny, shimmering patch of ocean, just barely visible. He took in the distant caw of the seagulls. He could hear the jingling of chains worn by the most dangerous convicts as they tossed and turned in their sleep, and the barking of the Alsatians in the kennels next to the prison building.

Dropping to the cold concrete floor, he began his morning ritual: a series of limbering stretches, one hundred push-ups, one hundred situps. Then, his blood pumping vigorously, he showered.

By the standards of the outside world, Baumann’s solitary cell was cramped and narrow. But it had its own shower and toilet, a bed, a table, and a chair.

He was in his early forties, but might have been taken for a decade younger. And he was strikingly handsome. His hair was full, black, and wavy, only slightly sprinkled with gray. His closely trimmed beard accentuated a jaw that was strong and sharp; his nose was prominent but aquiline, beneath a heavy brow; his complexion was the olive so prevalent in Mediterranean countries.

Baumann might have been mistaken for a southern Italian or a Greek were it not for his eyes, which were a brilliant, clear, and penetrating blue, fringed by long eyelashes. When he smiled, which was rarely and only when he wanted to charm, his grin was radiant, his teeth perfect and brilliantly white.

In his six years in Pollsmoor Prison he’d been able to achieve a level of physical training he could never have otherwise. He had always been remarkably fit, but now his physique was powerful, even magnificent. For when he wasn’t reading there was little else to do but calisthenics and hwa rang do, the little-known Korean martial art he had spent years perfecting.

He changed into his blue prison uniform, which, like everything he wore, was stenciled with the number 4, indicating that it was property of his section of Pollsmoor Prison. Then, making his bed as usual, he began what he knew would be a long day.

Pollsmoor Prison is located just outside Cape Town, South Africa, on land that was once a racetrack and several farms. Surrounded by high stone walls topped with electrified razor-wire fences, it is a rolling landscape of palm and blue gum trees. The warders and their families live within the prison walls in comfortable apartments, with access to recreation centers, swimming pools and gardens. The four thousand prisoners normally incarcerated here are kept in conditions of legendary squalor and severity.

Pollsmoor, one of only eleven maximum-security prisons in South Africa, never had the fearsome reputation of the now-defunct Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz, the rocky island off the Cape Peninsula coast isolated by icy, ferocious waves. But it succeeded Robben Island as the repository for those South Africa considered its most dangerous criminals, a group that included first-degree murderers and rapists-and, once, political dissidents who battled apartheid. It was here that Nelson Mandela completed the last few years of his quarter-century prison sentence, after Robben Island was closed and converted into a museum.

Baumann had been moved here in a van, in leg irons with twenty others, from Pretoria Central Prison, immediately following his secret trial. To most of the boers, or warders, and all of his fellow inmates, prisoner number 322/88 was a mystery. He almost always kept to himself and rarely spoke. At supper he sat alone, quietly eating his rotten vegetables, the maize and cowpeas glistening with chunks of fat. During exercise periods in the yard, he invariably did calisthenics and hwa rang do. After lockup, rather than watching a movie or television like everyone else, he read books-an enormous and peculiar range of books, ranging from histories of the atomic bomb or of the international oil business to biographies of Churchill or Nietzsche, an expose of a recent Wall Street scandal, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and a treatise on sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance architecture.

The other prisoners (called bandiete or skollies) smoked contraband zolls, long homemade cigarettes wrapped in brown paper, while Baumann smoked Rothmans. No one knew how he had got them. He never took part in the smuggling schemes of the others, nor joined in their escape attempts, which were usually amateurish and always failed, ending in capture or, most often, death.

Nor was he a member of any of the numerous gangs, which, with the encouragement of the prison officials, controlled the inmate population. These were rigid, highly stratified organizations, controlled by governing councils called krings. They engaged in ritual killings, beheadings, dismemberment, even cannibalism. They were hostile to nonmembers, whom they called mupatas, or sheep.

Once, a few days after Baumann had arrived at Pollsmoor, one of the gangs dispatched their most vicious lanie-a leader serving a long sentence, whom everyone knew to avoid-to threaten him in the exercise yard. The lanie was found brutally murdered-so horribly mangled, in fact, that the men who discovered him, all hardened men, were sickened. Several inmates were unlucky enough to witness the act, which was done quickly and efficiently. The most terrible thing about it was that even in the thick of the struggle, there was no visible change in Baumann’s glacial demeanor. Afterward, no one would ever admit having seen the killing. Baumann was treated with respect and left alone.

About Baumann, it was known only that he was serving a life sentence and that he had recently been reassigned from kitchen duty to the auto shop, where repair work was done on the prison officials’ cars. It was rumored that he had once been employed by the South African government, that he used to work for the state intelligence and secret service once called the Bureau for State Security, or BOSS, and now called the National Intelligence Service.

It was whispered that he had committed a long string of famous terrorist acts in South Africa and abroad-some for BOSS, some not. It was believed that he had been imprisoned for assassinating a member of the Mossad’s fearsome kidon unit, which was true, although that had merely been a pretext, for he had been ordered to do so. In truth, he was so good at what he did that he frightened his own employers, who much preferred to see him locked away forever.

A boer had once heard that within BOSS Baumann was known as the Prince of Darkness. Why, the warder could not say. Some speculated it was because of his serious mien; some believed it was because of his facility at killing, which had been so vividly demonstrated. There were plenty of theories, but no one knew for certain.

In the six years he had been imprisoned here, Baumann had come to know the place extremely well. He had become so accustomed to the smell of Germothol disinfectant that it had become a pleasant part of the ambience, like the salty sea air. He was no longer startled by the whoop of the “cat,” the siren that went off without warning, at odd moments, to summon guards to an incident-a fight, an escape attempt.

At half past nine in the morning, Baumann entered the auto shop and was greeted by the warder, Pieter Keevy. Baumann rather liked Keevy. He was basically a good sort, if a bit slow on the uptake.

The relationship between boer and bandiet was a strange one. Warders were famously cruel, to the point of sadism-yet at the same time, touchingly, they desperately wanted to be liked by the prisoners.

Baumann was aware of this vulnerability and took advantage of it whenever possible. He knew that Keevy was fascinated by Baumann, wanted to know about his life, where he came from. Baumann duly provided the guard with morsels from time to time-morsels that piqued Keevy’s curiosity without ever satisfying it. He liked Keevy because it was so easy to manipulate him.

“We’ve got a new one in for you boys today,” Keevy announced heartily, clapping Baumann on the shoulder. “Food-service lorry.”

“Oh?” Baumann replied equably. “What’s wrong with it, baas?”

“Don’t know. They’re saying it smokes whenever they shift gears.”

“White smoke?”

Keevy shrugged. “Thing sort of shifts with a bang.”

“I see. Probably drinking up transmission fluid, too. Not a big deal. Probably a bad vacuum modulator.”

Keevy cocked an eyebrow and nodded sagely as if he understood. “Bloody pain in the arse.”

“Not really, Piet. And we’re almost done with the chaplain’s car.” Baumann indicated the small black Ford sedan he’d been working on for the last few days.

“Let Popeye do it,” Keevy said. “Popeye” was the prison nickname for Jan Koopman, the other skolly who worked in the auto-repair shop. “Like I said, it’s a food-service lorry. We wouldn’t want to miss any meals, now would we?”

Baumann chuckled at the warder’s pathetic attempt at humor and replied dryly: “I’d hate to miss out on another ear.” This was a reference to a time when Baumann, tucking into his maize and cowpeas at supper a few weeks ago, discovered a large, hairy, filthy pig ear.

“Oh!” Keevy gasped as he exploded with laughter. “Oh-the hairy ear!”

“So why don’t I ask Popeye to take a look at the lorry, while I get the chaplain’s car out of here.” Keevy was still laughing, silently and helplessly, his large round shoulders heaving.

Popeye, whose shoulder boasted a large, crude tattoo, which signified he’d knifed a warder, arrived a few minutes later and sullenly obeyed Baumann’s directions. He was actually larger than Baumann and weighed a good deal more, but he knew enough to be afraid of his coworker and did what he was told.

As Baumann opened the trunk of the chaplain’s car, he furtively glanced over at Keevy, who was by now taking a drag on a cigarette. Sure enough, as he did every morning after he lit his cigarette, Keevy lumbered to the door and went off to get a mug of coffee and take a ten- or fifteen-minute break with the warder at the next station.

Standing at the trunk of the car, Baumann called over to Popeye, “Could you check out this fucking tailpipe? Think it’s got to be replaced?”

Popeye came over and knelt down to inspect the tailpipe. “Shit, what the hell are you talking about?” he said belligerently, seeing nothing wrong with it.

“I’ll show you,” Baumann said quietly as he reached down with both hands, grasped Popeye’s chin from behind and above, and, with a sudden, violent shake from side to side, pulled the chin upward to a fortyfive-degree angle. It was all over in a few seconds, and there was not even time for Popeye to cry out before he slumped, dead, to the concrete floor.

Baumann quickly dragged the inert body across the floor to the glossy cinnamon-red tool cabinet. He opened it, removed the shelves of drill bits, wedged the body inside, and turned the lock. He glanced back at the door. Old reliable Keevy still hadn’t returned from his break. At least five minutes remained before Keevy would be relieved by the next guard. Always there was a routine: human beings thrive on routine.

Baumann reached deep into the trunk of the chaplain’s car and lifted a section of the tan carpeting that lined it. Behind the flap of carpeting were the latches he had installed during the last few days of work on the car. He opened the latches and pulled back the false wall, which he had installed and camouflaged by gluing the carpet liner over it.

Behind the panel was a concealed compartment between the trunk and the car’s backseat, just big enough for him to crawl into. All of this he had accomplished while doing the requested bodywork on the car. Keevy, who paid no attention to Baumann’s work, suspected nothing.

He climbed into the trunk and positioned himself in the compartment. As he was about to pull the panel closed behind him, he heard the approach of a heavy set of footsteps. He struggled out of the space, but too late. Standing a few feet away, his mouth gaping, was Keevy.

Keevy was not supposed to be here, and it saddened Baumann. “What the fucking-” Keevy said in a funny, strangled little voice, trying to comprehend what Baumann was doing. In one hand he held a clipboard, which Baumann now realized the guard had absentmindedly left behind before taking his break.

Baumann chuckled to himself and gave Keevy a radiant, endearing smile. “Trunk’s coming apart,” he explained to the guard as he casually crawled out, swung his feet around, and stood up. “With what they pay that poor old man of the cloth, it’s not surprising.”

But Keevy, suspicious, shook his head slowly. “Coming apart?” he said stupidly.

Baumann put an arm around the warder’s shoulders, feeling the soft flesh yield like a bowl of quivering aspic. He gave him a comradely squeeze. “Look,” he whispered confidingly. “Why don’t we keep this between you and me?”

Keevy’s eyes narrowed with greed. His mouth was slack. “What’s in it for me?” he said at once.

“Oh, quite a lot, baas,” Baumann said, his arm still around Keevy’s shoulders. “A pig’s ear, for one thing.”

He smiled again, and Keevy began to chortle. Baumann laughed, and Keevy laughed, and Baumann made his right hand into a fist, and in one simple motion swung it back and then slammed it into the hollow of Keevy’s armpit with enormous force, crushing the brachial nerve, which is wide at that point and close to the surface.

Keevy collapsed immediately.

Baumann caught him as he sagged and crushed Keevy’s trachea, killing him at once. With some difficulty, he pushed the body underneath a workbench. In a few minutes, he had installed himself within the hidden compartment in the chaplain’s car and tightened the latches. It was dark and close in there, but there wasn’t long to wait. Soon he could hear the footsteps of another prison official entering the shop.

With a loud metallic clatter, the blue-painted steel doors, which led to the vehicle trap and the courtyard outside, began to lift. The car’s ignition was switched on; the engine was revved exactly three times-signifying that all was according to plan-and the car began to move forward.

There, a minute or two went by, during which time the guards in the vehicle trap carefully inspected the car to make sure no prisoner was hiding in it. Baumann was thoroughly familiar with how they inspected vehicles, and he knew he would not be caught. The trunk was opened. Baumann could see a tiny sliver of light appear suddenly at a gap where the panel met the trunk’s floor.

He inhaled slowly, noiselessly. His heart hammered; his body tensed. Then the trunk was slammed and the car moved forward.

Out of the vehicle trap. Into the courtyard.

Baumann could taste the exhaust fumes and hoped he would not have to remain here much longer. A moment later, the car again came to a halt. He knew they had arrived at the prison gates, where another cursory inspection would be done. Then the car moved on again, soon accelerating as it merged with the main road to Cape Town.

Clever though he was, Baumann knew he could not have orchestrated his escape without the help of the powerful man in Switzerland who for some reason had taken a keen interest in his liberty.

The car’s driver, a young man named van Loon, was an accountant in the office of the prison commandant as well as a friend of the chaplain’s. The young accountant had volunteered to pick up the chaplain, who was arriving on a Trek Airways flight from Johannesburg to D. F. Malan Airport in Cape Town, in the chaplain’s own newly repaired car.

By prior arrangement with Baumann, however, van Loon would find it necessary to make a brief stop at a petrol station along the way for refueling and a cup of coffee. There, in a secluded rest stop out of sight of passersby, Baumann would get out.

The plan had worked perfectly.

He was free, but his elation was dampened somewhat by the unpleasantness with the warder in the auto shop. It was unfortunate he had had to kill the simple fellow.

He had rather liked Keevy.