From the terrorist camps of Mozambique to the cloistered halls of Cambridge and beyond, THE FLAMINGO ROOM moves with breathtaking speed to its violent conclusion back where it all began, in a remote corner of Zimbabwe’s great game reserve of Ghona re zhou – place of the elephants.
Using fiction based solidly on fact, The Flamingo Room is the first in a series of novels by Jerold Richert to explore the myths surrounding Zimbabwe’s ancient ruins, their origin, and their controversial link to King Solomon and the Phoenicians.
It had been called the ‘archaeological myth of the century’, but to Chris Ryan, a part-time soldier, tracker, pilot and owner of a game sanctuary, the age-old controversy surrounding the origin of the Zimbabwe Ruins was the last thing on his mind. That is, until his young wife is murdered by terrorists, and the trail reaches across the world.
To find those responsible, he must get help from an eccentric local curator, and a reluctant hieroglyphics expert at the Cairo Museum.
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Jerold Richert Novels
The Lowveld - 1967
No color flagged the coming of spring to the Lowveld. The rains were late again, and from the Limpopo to the Sabi River and beyond into Mozambique, the mopani trees were leafless and grey; the wide rivers dry and white under the scorching sun.
On a private game sanctuary bordering the great wildlife reserve of Gona re zhou – place of the elephants – a battered, green jeep careered its way through the bush, trailing a plume of white dust and leaning precariously as it swerved to avoid the piles of elephant dung and broken branches that littered the track. The elderly African passenger used both hands to grip the frame of his seat, throwing quick glances of disapproval at the young driver.
Chris Ryan ignored him. He was in no mood for caution. He crashed through the gears as the vehicle lurched down a bank into the bed of a dry stream; the engine grinding as the wheels churned through the sand, then surging as they skipped and skidded up the hard gravely bank on the opposite side. He changed gear at the top, then suddenly swung off the track into the trees, and the old Shangaan, who had removed a hand to adjust the rifle clamped between his bony knees, grabbed quickly at the seat again to avoid being thrown out.
'Well, hold on, for God’s sake, Fuli.'
Fulamani clicked his tongue and shook his head, but otherwise remained silent as they swerved around the trees towards a thin line of reeds and stopped with a jerk on the eroded bank of the river. With a sigh of relief, he climbed out to follow his angry young companion down onto the hot white sand.
The waterhole lay in a bend of the dry river, a dark pool stagnating in the shade of a wild fig that stood on the bank. Fresh game spoor dimpled the sand around the pool, but few animals had gone into the water; turned away by the sweet heavy smell and rainbow sheen of the diesel fuel that covered the surface. Shrunken fragments of hide and the bones of those unable to resist their thirst lay scattered about on the sand.
'Bastards!’ Chris prodded angrily with his foot at the bloated carcass of a young zebra. ‘Someone's going to pay for this.'
Fulamani clicked his tongue in sympathy, although the sight of dead or dying animals did not disturb him as it did his young master. As a former poacher he was used to such things, but those days were past. The Nkosi Wally and his son had taken over the responsibility of feeding his family, so by African tradition were now a part of it. If this business angered them, then it angered him also.
'It is a bad thing, Nkosi,' he said, scowling.
It was the third poisoned waterhole they had found that morning. The first had been less than five miles from Gara Pasi, close to the boundary and, ironically, would more than likely have gone unnoticed had it not been for the sudden increase in animals at the game sanctuary’s own waterholes.
Scouting the river for the reason, they had discovered the waterholes had not all dried up as they had first suspected, but had been poisoned - the stink of diesel almost strong enough to overpower the stench of the rotting carcasses.
'It has to be the new game rancher next door,' Wally Ryan had told Chris, his face tight with anger. 'Take Fuli with you and check downriver. I'll get some help and burn this lot. If you find the next hole poisoned, come straight back. Don't do anything stupid.' Wally Ryan had little faith in his son's firebrand style of diplomacy.
Chris's anger increased as he strode back to the jeep. Shooting game at a waterhole after poisoning the other waterholes around it was illegal, and Gara Pasi was their livelihood. The survival of the sanctuary depended on the survival of the wildlife. It was bad enough with the drought. They did not need a greedy game-cropper to make things worse.
Sitting in the idling jeep, Chris tapped thoughtfully on the steering wheel. 'How far to the next water, Fuli?'
The old man hesitated, then reluctantly held up three gnarled fingers. 'Maybe two, three mile. But Nkosi Wally say…'
Fulamani’s caution was cut short as the jeep lurched forward, and he clutched hastily once more at the frame of his seat.
The game-cropper's hides were built high on the bank overlooking the waterhole. Two narrow pole shelters with thatched tops, the front walls ending at a comfortable height for resting a rifle on while sitting down. Drapes of green mosquito netting hung from the pole eves above the walls as a screen.
The African cleaner responsible for the hide replaced the canvas folding chairs and fold-up camping tables neatly in position after he had swept the floors, picked up the brass bullet casings, and collected the empty beer bottles. He put the casings into the old paraffin tins by the doorway, then stacked the beer crates outside under a tree, ready for when the truck came with a fresh supply.
His orders had been to keep the place clean and tidy for the visitors. He was not allowed to make a fire, cook food, or wash in the waterhole, but this didn't bother him. Even though it was women's work, it was an easy job, and he was able to play his new wireless all day - as loud as he liked.
By mid-afternoon he had finished his chores. He drank the rest of the warm, coke and ate the bun with the sticky pink icing he had saved from the morning, then he flicked the switch on the wireless to short wave. Using the big chrome knob, he tuned into several foreign stations. He enjoyed going from one strange place to another by only the smallest turn of the knob. Many of the stations he recognized. Radio Mozambique, Radio Zaire, and the South African Broadcasting Service. The Portuguese station was mostly talking. He could not speak Portuguese, but recognized the sound of the language and the name, Samora Machel, which seemed to be every second word. He had no idea who Samora Machel was, and didn't care, he just wished he would stop talking. He taught him a lesson by cutting him off in mid-sentence with a small turn of the knob and tuned into a birthday request program from Salisbury.
He sat in the first hide where it was cool, dozing with his head on the table, the radio sitting on his jacket outside where the reception was good. The music was loud, so he did not hear the jeep arrive. All he heard was the crunching sound as the radio went dead. Then he heard the sound of an engine. That too stopped, and then silence.
He jerked up in alarm, trying to remember if the boss had said he was coming early. Then he remembered the wireless. He rushed out to see two men, one white and one black, sitting in a vehicle with no roof. He gaped at them in surprise, then looked for his wireless. It was squashed flat under the front wheel; a mess of splintered plastic and buckled chrome strips spread over his jacket. The shiny chrome knob had rolled away, leaving a smooth track like that of a centipede in the freshly swept dust. It flashed at him in the sunlight, and he stared at it in disbelief, too shocked to speak, or even to be afraid.
The young white man jumped out of the vehicle and pushed past him into the hide to kick aside the chairs and overturn the table, and the cleaner suddenly forgot about his wireless. He turned to see the black man coming around the truck towards him, a frown on his face, and a gun in his hands, and his fear increased. He started to move away, but the old man stopped him.
'You! Where are you going?'
He glanced nervously at the gun and heard himself speaking, although it sounded like a stranger.
'My wireless is broken!'
'What?' The old man reached out and caught him by the collar, jerking him forward.
'The truck, Baba... it stood on my wireless. It is broken!'
'Do not speak to me about your wireless, and I am not your father. What are you doing here?' The man prompted an answer with a shake.
'Nothing, Bab... sir.'
'Are you the one who put the gasoline in the water?'
'Eh?' He looked at the waterhole in confusion.
The old man shook him. 'Not this one. Do not be stupid with me!'
The angry white man appeared. 'Leave him, Fuli. Get the rope and tie it to those poles.'
The cleaner watched in dismay as they used a rope fastened to the jeep to pull down the hides. It did not take long.
'You! Come and move all this rubbish.'
He helped drag the poles and thatching into a heap and the white man threw the chairs and tables on top. A can of petrol was brought from the vehicle and splashed over the pile, then it was set alight. The two men climbed into the jeep and backed it into the stack of beer crates, sending it crashing over. Chris was about to switch off the engine and look around to see what else he could destroy when Fuli tapped him urgently on the arm and pointed above the trees. The dust cloud was close. Chris slammed his foot on the accelerator and the ancient jeep spluttered, almost stalling, before lurching forward, picking up speed slowly.
He looked for another way out, but the riverine scrub was thick. The turn-off from the dirt road onto the bush track was only a few hundred yards away, close to a bend, and he raced towards it. Few vehicles could go where the small jeep could in the bush. If he could get there first, he knew he would get away.
They were almost there when a three-ton Bedford came around the bend, blocking the road. Chris stood on the brake pedal, using his grip on the steering wheel to lift himself off the seat for leverage, and they skidded into a broadside, stopping within feet of the truck's radiator. Both vehicles were immediately obscured in a dense cloud of dust. The jeep stalled.
Chris pushed hard on the button and held his foot flat on the accelerator, but the hot engine refused to start. Excited voices came from above, a door slammed, then a blurred figure appeared. A powerful hand took hold of his shirt and jerked him out of the seat.
'You stupid little bastard! What the hell do you think you're doing? You nearly hit us!'
Blinking against the clearing dust, Chris saw a big man glaring down at him. Behind him a truck full of Africans, laughing and exclaiming loudly over the dramatically narrow escape. Some of them jumped off to examine the jeep, clicking tongues and seeming disappointed to find it still in one piece. Others were looking down the road at the smoke from the burning hides.
‘I'm talking to you! Why are you...' The man broke off to bellow at the Africans: 'What the hell are you bastards shouting for?'
Several voices answered. 'Moto, Baas! Fire!'
The man left Chris and ran a short way down the road. The cleaner was running towards him, waving his arms and shouting.
Chris saw his opportunity and edged back into the seat. Fuli was sitting rigidly upright in his, clutching the rifle between his knees. The engine turned, but refused to start.
The man came rushing back, and once again Chris was pulled out and thrown to the ground. The man's strength was frightening.
'Jesus! it's you what done it. You burned the hides.'
Chris stood up slowly. No point in trying to deny it. No point in saying anything.
'Ja, man! That's what you done, isn't it?' The man’s eyes narrowed and he moved a step closer. 'You know what? I'm going to give you a bloody good hiding.'
Chris stood his ground. I won't move, he told himself. The Afrikaner’s going to kill me for sure, but I won't move. If he hits me, I'm going to hit him back. He stiffened in anticipation of what was coming. He knew it had to come.
'Get stuffed,’ he muttered. ‘Poisoning waterholes is illegal.'
The Afrikaner’s eyes widened in astonishment, then he smiled contemptuously. 'Jesus, man...' He began turning away, shaking his head, as if disappointed by such a feeble response, then he suddenly swung a vicious backhand.
The blow knocked Chris off his feet. He lay stunned, shocked by the suddenness and power of the blow.
'So... It's to get stuffed am I?'
Chris rolled over and tried to get up. Another blow to the side of his head knocked him down again. He lay with his face in the dust, choking on it as he gasped for breath.
'Ja, man. A bloody good hiding is what you need!'
Chris lifted himself groggily to his hands and knees, spreading his arms to stop from falling over, spitting blood and dust. From under his arm he saw the blurred image of two large boots standing close alongside. One of them lifted out of sight, and he let himself drop. The boot glanced off his ribs, but with still enough power to make him cry out in pain.
'Ja, you little bastard! That's it Have a good cry.'
Chris pulled his legs up to his stomach and covered his head with his arms. His mind screamed at him, He's going to kill you!
The next kick struck him on the thigh, then another crashed into his protecting arms, smashing them against his nose. It was like being kicked by a buffalo. He tried to guess where the next kick would land, tensing himself to receive it, but the kick did not come. Instead, a rifle shot.
A shocked silence followed the explosion. Even the truck full of laborers fell silent as the echo hammered away through the trees. Then the surprised voice of the Afrikaans game-cropper. 'Hey…what do you think you’re doing, Kaffir? Put down that bloody gun.'
Then Fuli's voice, apologetic. 'Sorry, sir, but is not good for you to be kicking the nkosi.'
'You give me that gun. Now!'
'Sorry, sir, but is belong to the nkosi.'
Holding his ribs, Chris sat up slowly. One eye was already half closed, and blood dripped from his nose. He smeared it away on his arm. His ear felt as if it had been ripped off.
'You had better tell that kaffir of yours to give me the rifle before I stick it up his arse.'
Through one watery eye, Chris focused on the blurred form of the cropper. He had moved back and was standing in front of the silent group of Africans, who seemed anxious to give him as much room as possible. Chris turned to squint at Fuli. The old man’s face bore a look of stubborn disapproval. A look Chris knew only too well. The rifle was pointed, unwavering, at the game-cropper's large paunch.
Chris smiled crookedly through his swollen lips. It hurt like hell. 'Maybe,' he said thickly, 'he's going to stick it up yours.'
'You sniveling little bastard. I'm going to have you and your kaffir arrested, you understand? I know who you are. You're from the place next door.'
Chris limped to the jeep and climbed in, and Fuli moved hesitantly to join him, the rifle pointed at the cropper.
Still the jeep wouldn’t start. The sound of its reluctant grinding filled the silence, and Chris thumped the steering wheel in frustration. Then a murmur of speculation passed through the group at the sound of another engine approaching. A Mercedes came around the bend and shuddered to a halt behind the truck. Three men got out. One of them was a balding man with a solemn, horsey face that Chris thought he had seen before, and it was this man who spoke to the Afrikaner.
'Anything the matter, Hennie? We saw the smoke and came to see if we could help.' He nodded towards Chris's bloody face and the angle of the jeep. 'Has there been an accident?'
The cropper was standing with his arms folded, a smug smile on his face. 'No accident, your worship, but it's a good thing you are here. You are witnessing a very serious crime. This hooligan burned the hides at the waterhole, and his kaffir took a shot at me with the rifle. He came bloody close to hitting me. I'm going to call the police as soon as I get back to the office.'
'Good God!' The man stared at Chris. 'Is this true?' His expression changed to one of puzzlement. 'Haven't we met somewhere before?'
Chris looked down and shook his head, remembering now who the man was, and suddenly glad of his damaged face. He willed the engine to start. It refused.
The magistrate continued to frown thoughtfully, and Chris turned helplessly to Fuli. The old man put down the rifle and climbed out to push, and there was an immediate rush of enthusiastic Africans to help. Fuli's daring use of the rifle had won him some admirers. The vehicle jerked, backfired, and finally spluttered into life, and Chris drove sedately past the watching group with his head turned away.
'Don't think you're going to get away with it,' the cropper bellowed after him. 'I'm going now to call the police!'
Chris stopped a few miles down the track and Fuli poured water from the canvas cooler bag into his hands so he could wash away the blood. The old man's lined face was still impassive, the sharp, almost Arabic features of his Shangaan heritage showing no sympathy.
Chris was guiltily aware that what Fuli had done had taken a lot of courage. Threatening someone with a rifle was bad enough if you were white. Fuli was in big trouble. They were both in big trouble.
'It is a brave man who takes food from the mouth of the hyena,' Chris joked, hoping to lighten the mood.
But the lines in the old man’s face only deepened into a frown and he remained silent.
'You what?' Wally Ryan was aghast. 'For God's sake, Chris! What the hell did you do that for? I told you not to do anything stupid. Why do you always have to be so bloody otherwise?
'Well somebody had to do it, Dad, poisoning waterholes is against the law.'
'So is burning down other people's property. We could have put in a complaint to the proper authorities.'
'Yeah... sure, just like we complained about the ranchers overshooting their quotas. Nothing happened.' He had been hoping for a bit more sympathy and understanding from his father.
He was sitting on his bed, sipping morosely from a cold bottle of beer held tentatively to the corner of his bruised mouth. If his father was this upset about the burning down of a couple of hides, how was he going to react when he heard the rest of the bad news? He took a deep breath.
'You haven't heard the best part yet.'
Wally Ryan absorbed the news of Fuli's intervention with an expression of disbelief. 'The old bugger did that?' He shook his head in wonder, his anger momentarily overshadowed by surprise. Fuli had never fired a gun in his life Then his expression became serious again. 'Of course, you know they're going to arrest him and throw him in jail, don't you?'
'You haven't heard all of it yet,' Chris murmured.
Wally Ryan sat down with a sigh of resignation. 'I don't know if I can take all this. What now, for God's sake?'
Chris took a long sip at his beer before answering. 'You remember the magistrate who fined me fifty quid for riding a bike on the roof of the hotel?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'Well, he was there with a few of his friends to do some shooting over the weekend. How's that for upholding the law?'
'You mean the same magistrate to whom you gave a two-fingered salute outside the court in front of the whole town?' Wally closed his eyes and took another deep breath. 'Hell, Son. You've really done it this time.'
Chris shrugged. 'I don't think he recognized me.' He grinned lopsidedly, pointing to the closed and swollen eye. 'Because of the disguise.'
'Don't be an idiot. He'll know as soon as he hears your name. Damn! This is much worse than I thought. The police will probably be here tomorrow.'
Chris picked despondently at a smear of dried blood on his arm as Wally sat silently in thought.
Finally, Wally went outside and bellowed for Fuli. He came back to scowl down at his son. 'You've put me in one hell of a spot, do you know that? I need Fuli around here, but now I'm going to have to send him away to his village until I can sort this thing out, and God knows how long that will take. Then Wally smiled. 'You crazy bugger. You really got stuffed up, didn't you?'
Chris forced a weak smile.
'Fancy a little spell in prison?'
He remained silent, the smile fading.
'That's what I thought. Now go clean yourself up while I talk to Fuli. Put something on that eye. Then you had better get some sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a long day.'
Wally Ryan had built the stone bungalow where it would have a view of the bend in the river, and the animals that came there to drink. After Chris had gone to bed, he sat on the verandah steps, looking out. It was a still night, with the leaves of the mahogany trees shimmering like tinsel under a three-quarter moon. Dark shadows rolled from beneath the trees; a herd of Zebra crossing the sand to the water.
A perfect night for an ambush, Wally thought bitterly, which is what would be happening this very moment on the Tshingwezi if Chris had not burned the hides. He smiled as he imagined him taking on the game cropper. Tail up and teeth bared, like a grumpy badger with a buffalo.
Despite the problems he would now have to face, Wally felt a strong sense of pride in his headstrong son. He may have acted rashly, but he had acted with courage and for what he believed in, and no man could do better than that. And perhaps it was all for the best. Gara Pasi was his own dream, and as much as he hated to admit it, the time had come for his son to move on and find a life of his own. Hopefully he would return, but for now, Gara Pasi was struggling to survive the drought and money was running short. It would be the perfect opportunity for himself to take the job with National Parks, and for Chris to leave the country for a while. He could not see him go to prison for something like this, not even for a day.
Wally Ryan woke Chris at daybreak.
'Pack your bags, Boyo,' he said cheerily, placing a mug of coffee on the floor beside the bed. ‘You're off to Australia. It's where they send all the criminals like you. Don't forget to write.'