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Dawn of Deception is a political thriller based around poaching in Kenya.
POACHING, POLITICS & KILLER MOTIVES...
After a personal tragedy changes David's life he joins the Kenyan Wildlife Service, working as a ranger in the Maasai Mara. Throwing himself into his work he is racked by feelings of guilt and anger, and dreams of finding the person responsible.
A routine patrol leads to the discovery of a major poaching racket and David makes it his mission to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice. The year is 1996, and Kenya is in political and economic turmoil. David and his adversary's worlds spiral closer together, until they finally collide with shocking consequences!
Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya
August 8th, 1961
Maliki grimaced as the laces holding the leather straps were pulled tight. There for protection, they covered most of his sinewy arms.
“Why can’t I go? I have every right to hate them as much as he does!” Maliki was referring to the raid that his father was planning on a British settler’s farm. The attack was set for the early hours of the following morning.
“You heard him, not until you are a man.” His younger brother shook his head, “You should be concentrating on today. If you don’t...well, you might never get the chance.” He frowned and stared into Maliki’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” He puffed out his chest, “Nothing scares me, you know that.” Maliki avoided looking back at his brother and tried to keep his breathing regular. Both of them knew that many young warriors had failed the test with fatal consequences.
“Come on, let’s go. They’re waiting for us.” His brother pulled back the kudu hide covering the entrance and stepped outside.
The sun announced its approach by reflecting on a thin layer of stratus high in the atmosphere. The clouds glowed orange, golden, red and yellow rays bursting through their sides.
Maliki headed for the men huddled around the smouldering campfire. The group’s animated discussion ceased as he approached. They watched him closely, searching for any sign of nerves. Maliki strode confidently towards their leader.
“A good day to go hunting,” he looked up at his six foot five inch father. Maliki would probably exceed that height when he stopped growing, even now at thirteen he was just a couple of inches short.
Chief Zuberi shook his head, “Remember, this is not a normal hunt.”
“Don’t worry, I will,” Maliki smiled. He embraced his father with the arm holding his spear and their ebony chests touched. The other held his four-foot tall shield, slightly wider than his toned body. He’d removed his brightly coloured shuka and jewellery to avoid spooking his prey. He had even taken off his most prized possession, a gold medallion with the two-headed figure of the Maasai God Engai Narok etched into the face. It was a gift from his mother, meant to bring good luck and wisdom. Maliki felt naked without it.
The older warriors scrutinising him were also dressed for battle. Their hair and cheeks dyed red to give them a more fearsome appearance.
“I’m not worried about your ability. If you weren’t ready I would not have permitted it. What I worry about is your over-confidence.” The Chief put his hand on Maliki’s shoulder, “Now make me proud!”
“They will have left if we don’t hurry up. As soon as the grass is dry they’ll be gone.” His brother turned towards the gap in the bush that marked the beginning of the track. It led east, away from the clearing that the temporary settlement was built in.
The tribe were being forced to move so often to escape the authorities’ resettlement programmes that there wasn’t enough time to build the usual defences. Normally they would surround the village in a boma, a ring of acacia bushes wound together tightly to form a sturdy fence. The steely spikes acting as a serious deterrent to predators and other intruders. As it was they only had a sentry and the fire to ward of any nightly visitors. Although laid out in the traditional way, the rondavels were hastily built. Some were hardly round at all and had patches of dung missing from the rattan frames that formed the walls.
The group were in high spirits as they filed down the track. Maliki joined in with their chatter, anticipating the celebrations that they would be enjoying later that day. As the bush grew denser the men became quiet. They picked their way through the long undergrowth with graceful strides.
He heard the sound of a warthog grunting near to them as it searched the forest for grubs. An orchestra of birds occupied the canopy above them, singing in symphony to the sunlight breaking through the leaves.
His brother’s hand went up, signalling them to stop. He beckoned Maliki to join him at the front of the line. They had reached the edge of the forest.
“Over there,” he pointed to the base of a gigantic boulder, a lump of granite fifty feet high, dumped there when the glazier carved its way through the rift valley millions of years ago.
“Where?” Maliki squinted. The crimson slither of sun was growing rapidly.
“By those two smaller rocks near the end...look, one of them’s moving now!”
His brother had found the pride’s den the previous day. There were eight of them in total. Two of them were females, four young cubs and one an adolescent male. But it was their elder leader that Maliki was interested in.
“I see them.”
The pride was sheltering under an overhang of rock that wasn’t quite deep enough to be considered a cave. He moved out from the trees, into the open field of corn-like grass that separated them from the rock. Dew covered the long stalks in large teardrops that soaked Maliki’s skin up to his waist. He welcomed the feeling. Like all cats lions hated water. They would wait for the sun to dry out the field before leaving. In the twilight hours they could often be seen using the dirt roads that crossed the park to avoid getting wet.
The men appeared from the bush behind him. Moving like silent spectres in their red war paint they formed a bullhorn shape, with Maliki at the centre. Once they were in position he started walking slowly towards the pride. They were downwind from the lions, using the light breeze to mask their scent as they approached. The other warriors followed suit, keeping their formation, treading slowly and deliberately. They gradually increased the space between them to spread the reach of their human net.
At some thirty meters away one of the lionesses heard their approach. She jumped onto a rock and let out a low rumbling growl to alert the rest of the pride.
The battle-scarred male rose up from its haunches. Shaking a dark and matted mane it let out a tremendous roar. The lion focussed on Maliki and padded towards him, making grunting noises that seemed to come from its belly.
For a moment he thought it was going to charge straight away. But the giant cat stopped a few meters from him, tilted its head to one side and snarled, displaying four-inch canines to warn him off. Maliki had to admit he was a magnificent specimen, a worthy opponent for a future Chief.
The men banged spears against their shields and chanted. They took turns to bait and distract the lion, causing it to circle between them.
Maliki overcame the urge to turn and flee. Even though his legs and heart were telling him to run like he had never run before. The lion was pacing from left to right, blocking them from the rest of the pride. He snapped and growled at the men either side but kept his eyes fixed on Maliki. The unblinking amber globes burnt into his soul.
Maliki took a deep breath and let out a guttural scream. The beast stopped prowling. Head dipped to the ground it let out a low growl. Its haunches heaved and the lion’s claws dug into the ground as it searched for purchase. Maliki screamed again and took a step forward. He rammed the three-inch wooden spike on the bottom of his shield into the ground and prepared to spear the lion from his fixed position.
Instead of charging and leaping at him the scarred veteran wriggled backwards. Maliki pulled the spike from the ground and moved a step closer. His father shouted for him to stop. But it was too late. Sensing his opportunity the huge male rushed forward and attacked. Using one enormous paw it knocked Maliki’s leg from underneath him and sent him crashing to the ground.
The beast pounced on top of him, biting into his arm and clawing at his face. Razor sharp teeth passed through his flimsy leather armour as if it were paper and latched on to Maliki’s forearm. Canines drove through flesh and hit solid bone. He cried out as red-hot pokers of pain were messaged to his brain. Maliki let go of the shield and struggled with his attacker. He grabbed its mane with his free hand. The pain ripped through him and his primeval screams intensified as the huge cat worried at his arm, tearing flesh and muscle apart.
Suddenly the animal cried out, a short sharp yelp, and went limp, crushing him with its weight. He felt the chest deflate and with one last twitch of its legs the lion went still. Maliki tried to move but his back was pinned to the ground.
“Help me get it off!”
The carcass was dragged away and Maliki could see his younger brother looking down at him spear in hand, blood dripping from the tip.
“No!” Maliki screamed, realising that the worst shame possible for a Maasai had befallen him. By killing the lion his brother had effectively exiled Maliki from the family and tribe forever.
South of Kisii, Western Rift Valley, Kenya
October 21st, 1991
David was desperately fighting the need to urinate. They had arrived in the midday heat, using the animal’s resting time to find a suitable hiding spot. The five hours since then had passed slowly as they waited and watched the waterhole. He couldn’t feel his feet and wondered how his father managed to look so comfortable.
“We might as well just give up,” David whispered. Fidgeting as his urge to pee overcame his desire to shoot his first buffalo. He had hunted smaller animals before. But having just turned sixteen, this was the first time his father had allowed him to test his skills on more dangerous game.
“I thought you were the one who wanted to do this?” Sefu smiled, “Be patient, they’ll be along soon. They’re always the last to come, just before dark.”
The waterhole was the only one for miles, enticing a small herd of impala, some zebra and a few giraffes to drink the brackish water. They were thirsty enough to risk being attacked by the handful of hungry crocodiles lying in wait. The giraffes splayed their front legs to reach the prized liquid. Gazelle and zebra took brief sips before flicking their heads up, ears turning and eyes twitching as they scanned their surroundings for predators.
All the time keeping a beady eye on the stationary crocodiles submerged in the water, the bony ridges of their prehistoric backs visible above the surface.
It was the height of the dry season and the receding waters were very low, their retreat marked by stains on the shallow banks. The long grass had been scorched tinder crisp by the fierce African sun and the season of bush fires would soon be upon them. David could taste the dust between his teeth, carried on the hot breeze hitting his face. Dusk approached, and the light was starting to fade.
“But...” David spotted a familiar dark shape emerge from the shrubbery to their right. The buffalo stopped a few meters out into the clearing and raised its nostrils, sniffing for danger before it proceeded towards the water’s edge. The other animals moved out of its ambling path. A pair of resident tickbirds rode the buffalo’s back, tolerated for the service they provided. It was the perfect target. Replaced by younger males the old bull would have left the herd to live out his final years alone, wandering around in an endless nomadic search for food.
David’s hand trembled slightly as he aimed down the beaded scope of the Lee Enfield .303.
“Breathing,” Sefu instructed him quietly.
David took a deep breath, and held it for a second. Allowing for the distance, light breeze and slight drop, he exhaled slowly and gently squeezed the trigger. He aimed for the heart, above and behind the beast’s front haunches.
Just as the shot rang out and the rifle recoiled into David’s shoulder the bull lurched forward. Searching for clearer water having stirred up the mud with its own hoofs. The bullet missed David’s intended target by a few inches and deflected off the bull’s rib cage, tearing into its lung. The tickbirds fled in a flutter of tiny wings. The other animals scattered in a flash of hooves and haunches, leaving the injured prey to stagger back into the bush and disappear from sight.
They rose slowly to their feet, muscles cramped and legs unsteady after being immobile for so long. David shot his father a worried look as he slung the rifle strap over his shoulder. They both knew that a wounded buffalo was extremely dangerous. Many a hunter was mauled to death by their fierce horns and trampling hoofs, sometimes just for startling them as their paths crossed in the night.
David followed his father into the forest and the circulation slowly returned to his aching legs. They picked their way along the track between the acacia bushes. The two-inch needles caught him occasionally, digging into his flesh. Nerves on edge they headed west towards the LandRover, constantly scanning the bush for any sign of the buffalo.
Eventually the trees started to thin out and they reached the edge of the veldt where the jeep was parked. David relaxed and loosened his grip on the rifle.
There was a loud crack as a branch was snapped under the buffalo’s weight. Hidden in the last of the bushes to their left it ambushed them.
David's father shouldered him out of the way, his rifle pointed towards the charging mass he pulled the trigger.
The large .303 slug shattered the buffalo’s skull and exploded into its brain, killing it instantly. Weighing over half a tonne, the dead animal’s momentum meant that it didn’t stop. It ploughed through the earth and slid to a halt inches from their feet. The huge nostrils flared and David felt the heat of the bull’s last breath on his toes.
“That was pretty close,” Sefu shouldered the rifle and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
“Close? I think I wet myself,” David replied and they burst into fits of relieved laughter.
“I’ll get the jeep,” Sefu said, once the adrenalin and laughter subsided a few minutes later. The twilight was dwindling and it was getting dark.
They gutted the beast under the glare of the headlights and Sefu hacked it into quarters using his machete. Between them they struggled to lift the pieces onto the back of the vehicle, their chests heaved and arms swelled as they got covered in blood.
“You can drive,” Sefu tossed David the keys and closed the tailgate.
“Thanks,” David grinned.
They left the entrails on the ground for the scavengers and headed off over the bumpy terrain, the suspension straining under the enormous load it was carrying.
“That was delicious,” Waseme licked the grease from her long delicate fingers, “well done you two.”
“Father killed it, not me. If it wasn’t for him we’d probably both be dead,” David’s reply was muffled by the piece of meat he rammed into his mouth.
“I’m sure you would have reacted if I hadn’t,” Sefu smiled, “you did well to hit it from that range in the first place. Tomorrow we’ll salt the rest of the meat. We’re going to be eating it for months.”
“Can we give some to Aunty Farisi?” David looked at his mother.
“You can take some over to her tomorrow on the way to school. Now finish your food, it’s late,” Waseme cast Sefu a nervous glance.
They were sat around the blazing campfire, carving the meat off the leg as it cooked on the spit. The smell as the fat sizzled and spat was almost as delicious as the taste.
“You heard your mother, it’s time for bed so eat up,” instructed Sefu.
David knew better than to argue. It would only mean more chores if he did, and there were enough of those to go around already.
His Aunty Farisi was his mother’s older sister and the only relative he had. Well the only one he was allowed to have anything to do with. At twelve years old Aunty Farisi had helped his mother run away from their clan. She wanted Waseme to escape the genital mutilation that she had suffered. By chance they stumbled across the catholic mission outside town and the sisters welcomed them in. His Aunty Farisi had been there ever since. She had become one of the nuns, caring for other misfortunate girls.
His father’s parents were stout Kikuyu and wouldn’t accept Sefu marrying outside their tribe. They and the rest of his family refused to come to the wedding and his father never forgave them. Sefu never spoke of his parents and David had no idea who his grandparents were or where they lived. He thought that by now there might have been some form of acceptance and he would have been allowed to meet them. There wasn’t, the tribal rift between the families was as wide as the great valley itself, timeless and unmoving.
Like his Aunty, Waseme rejected Maasai traditions and turned to the Christian faith. She too would no doubt have become a nun if not for meeting his father.
“Don’t forget to read a page of your bible tonight,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
“But you said, it’s late,” pleaded David.
“I suppose just once won’t hurt, but make sure that you say your prayers,” Waseme smiled, “now off you go, we’ll see you in the morning. Have you put the hens away?”
“Don’t worry they're safe, I locked them in earlier,” David sighed dramatically. He got up and dusted the bits of food from his lap. “Good night then,” he bent down and kissed his mother on the forehead.
“Sleep well,” she moved closer to Sefu.
“Good night,” David nodded to his father, turned and headed for the wooden barn.
David crossed the patch of bare earth that separated the barn from the bush surrounding it. Every year they burnt back a large area around the farm. Forming a barrier against the natural fires that raged the savannah in the dry season. He pushed the roughly hewn door open and stepped over the piece of timber that both held the frame together and represented the threshold to their home.
Although they were close to the town they were still not connected to the national grid. The electric poles not venturing out from the main road that led into Kisii. A gas lamp flickered on the rickety table that acted as the kitchen surface. The light it produced was unstable and shifting, not quite able to fill the room.
David walked over to the bed and kicked off his sandals before kneeling next to it. He put them underneath the bed and clasped his hands together.
He sat up, wondering what had woken him from his deep slumber, and why the usually dark room was bathed in light. There was another loud blast from the horn of a vehicle outside and David’s brain groggily put two and two together.
He squinted blindly around the room. When his eyes adjusted to the light David could make out his father, crouched next to the door with his rifle held in front of him.
“Who is it?” he peeled back the blanket and swung his legs over the edge of the squeaky metal bed.
“Stay still and keep quiet!” Sefu glared at him briefly before turning his attention back to the door.
“Listen to your father,” whispered Waseme, seeing David look towards his rifle. It was propped up in the corner opposite his bed. David stayed where he was, trembling as the adrenalin pumped through his veins. The silence was broken by another long blast on the horn.
“Come out now and you won’t be hurt,” was the loud cry that followed.
“How do I know that?” Sefu shouted through the door. He beckoned them to move onto the floor at the foot of his parents’ bed. David crawled across the room as instructed and joined his mother. He could feel her arm trembling as she pulled him close to her. They crouched together, arms looped around one another’s back. David pulled back the hessian bag covering the window and peeked outside.
“You have my word,” replied the man wearing a red and white chequered shemagh. The scarf was wrapped around his head so just a slit was left for his eyes. He nodded to the man holding an AK47 machine gun standing beside him. The man smiled and nodded, but kept his finger on the trigger.
David swallowed hard. Something wasn’t right about the way the man smiled. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, the way they did just before a kill shot. Behind the group of six men, including the one who appeared to be their leader, there were two more men in the cab of an old Bedford truck. He could hear another three or four of them stumbling around in the maize patch behind the barn. David guessed that there were twelve of them altogether, dressed in un-matching t-shirts, combat trousers and black leather boots. The men that he could see were tall, probably Maasai, and despite the t-shirts they moved with military precision.
“We have the building surrounded, if you don’t come out in sixty seconds then we’ll burn the place down. With you in it.”
The movement behind the house confirmed that the unseen intruder was telling the truth. His father stood and leant his Lee Enfield against the wall next to the door.
“Hold on, I’m coming out,” said Sefu.
“No,” David shook his head, “I don’t trust them.”
“Quiet!” Sefu put his finger to his mouth.
His father opened the door and stepped out into the glare of the headlights, keeping a hand on the doorframe next to his rifle.
“Step forward, away from the door.”
Sefu must have realised that to disobey would result in a barrage of bullets. He let his hand slip from the door and moved a pace towards them.
“What do you want?” David’s father was shielding his eyes with his hand.
“Somewhere to stay for the night, that’s all. Who else is in there with you?” the man lowered his machine gun so it pointed at the ground.
Sefu hesitated for a second before replying, “Just my wife and son...you’re welcome to stay the night if you want. We don’t have much, but I can offer you some food and shelter.”
“See, I told you they were hospitable in these parts,” the leader turned to his entourage, “you can relax. We won’t find any trouble here.”
David watched his father walk over to the group with his hand outstretched, “I’m Sefu...”
The man standing next to the one doing the talking cut his greeting short. He struck David's father viciously on the temple with the stock of his gun, dropping him to the ground. Sefu lifted his hands to protect himself from further blows and was thrust face down in the dirt.
The leader and three of his goons rushed into the building. David stood up to confront them, putting himself between Waseme and the gang of men.
“Leave us alone!” spittle flew from his mouth.
The man wearing the headscarf lunged forward and grabbed him by his testicles. He squeezed them hard and David almost passed out with the pain.
He grabbed hold of the hand on his balls and tried feebly to prise it off. The man’s grip was like a vice. David squealed in protest as he was dragged into the middle of the room.
“Shut up, you sound like a pig,” the man let go and struck him across the face with the back of his hand, his maniacal eyes gleaming behind the shemagh.
He caught hold of David’s arm, twisted it behind his back, and pushed his hand up between his shoulder blades. The pain shot through his arm. David bit his lip to stop himself crying out again. He was thrust towards the doorway and felt a heavy boot connect with his backside. It sent him sprawling in the dirt beside his father.
“Bring her outside!” the madman shouted.
Two of the men shouldered their weapons and moved to the corner. They picked Waseme up by her elbows and carried her outside to join the others.
“Good, I want this bitch to see what happens to Kikuyu bastards, especially ones that steal our women and land. Get them to their knees!” he snarled. “And make sure that she watches.”
One of the men pushed his mother to the floor and used both hands to hold her head fixed towards David and his father. She closed her eyes, tears running down her cheeks. The man in the headscarf stepped in front of Sefu and aimed the machine gun at his kneeling father’s head.
“No!” David screamed as he pulled the trigger.
The bullet burst Sefu’s head like a watermelon, spraying bits of bone and flesh over David’s face. His father fell backwards, legs trapped underneath him.
Waseme broke free from her captor and scrambled to her feet. She launched herself forward and attacked the masked man with her nails, scratching at the scarf, trying to get at his eyes. The neck of his t-shirt was torn open and revealed a gold medallion surrounded by an ivory lattice. It glowed like a small fiery sun in the truck’s headlights. Etched in the centre was the figure of a man with two heads, it was an image that David would never forget.
The murderer grabbed hold of her hands and laughed, his face only inches from his mother's, “I think we’ll have some fun with this one before we kill her. Keep the boy alive until I’ve finished with her. I want him to hear how she screams with pleasure.”
“You bastard!” David struggled to his feet, hoping the man could feel the hatred in his eyes. Wanting to strangle him with his bare hands.
It was the last thing he remembered before the butt of the AK47 smashed into the back of his head and the lights went out.
Maasai Mara, Near the Tanzanian Border
August 9th, 1996
David woke with a start and the soaked sleeping bag fell away from him as he sat up. His chest glistened with sweat and he stared blankly at the canvas, struggling to come out of his recurring nightmare. It always seemed so real, like the five years that had passed since didn’t exist.
He waited for his eyes to adjust to the light filtering through the olive green material. He glanced over at Damo, worried that he might have screamed and woken him up. Thankfully his friend seemed to be asleep, Damo’s back was to him but he could hear his slow rhythmical breathing.
David lay back down on the bedroll and stared up at the point where the sides of the Government Issue two-man tent met in the middle. The canvas started to blur and then melted away, he found himself being transported back through time to that night. The rumbling bellows of a lion down in the valley snapped him back to the present. David shook his head, dream or daydream? He wasn’t sure. At times his conscious and subconscious overlapped, and reality and fiction became blurred. In some of his dreams he managed to save his father. Only to awake and have to undergo the painful realisation that Sefu was really dead and never coming back.
David sighed, sat up and swung his legs out of the sleeping bag. He scratched his itchy scalp, feeling along the ragged line where the bone had grown back together to form a pronounced ridge. The doctor in Kisii had told him that he was lucky to survive the blow, which fractured his skull, David wasn’t so sure. Death would have at least meant an end to witnessing the daily torment and suffering that his mother went through.
The raid on their farm and his father’s murder was not an isolated incident. It was part of a widespread campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing, designed to keep the Kikuyu away from the ballot polls and Moi in power. Reports emerged over the years that tens of thousands of Kikuyu lucky enough not to be slaughtered were held in detention centres to prevent them from voting.
Most of the land returned to Kikuyu ownership by President Kenyatta after the British withdrew was now being contested by Moi’s regime. The Kikuyu farmers were being driven out and the title deeds signed over to people from Moi’s tribe, the Kalenjin. Their farm was just one of thousands taken from its owners by force.
“Are you OK David?”
Damo’s voice startled him for a second. He had forgotten where he was again. “Just tired, I didn’t sleep very well with all the commotion that the pride was making down by the river.”
Damo nodded, as if accepting his excuse, but after camping together hundreds of times he knew David as well as any man ever would. One drunken night in Narok he had told Damo about his father’s murder and the all too real nightmares. That was when any lingering reservations he had about working with a Maasai were extinguished. Damo had tears in his eyes when he hugged him and apologised for what another member of his tribe had done. A bond was formed between them that day, made stronger by their experiences in the bush. They had become like brothers, relying on each other for survival on a daily basis in their campaign against the poachers.
What David hadn’t told Damo was that joining the Kenyan Wildlife Service gave him the opportunity to travel and explore different parts of the country. Improve his chances of finding the monster responsible for destroying his family.
He looked over at Damo, “Go and wake the others. I’ll get the fire going and the water on.”
“OK boss!” joked Damo, “Right away!” He gave a mock salute before pulling on his combat trousers.
Although Damo always followed his orders without question David occasionally wondered whether he resented taking them from someone almost half his age.
At forty-six Damo was as a fit as any member of the squad and could outrun him easily, his extra height and longer limbs giving him a distinct advantage. David noticed that he too had lost a lot of weight, his sinewy muscles more defined. The whole squad were leaner and harder after three weeks of trekking through the bush. They were covering up to thirty miles a day through unforgiving landscape just to keep up with the herd.
They got dressed into their camouflage fatigues and packed away their equipment in silence. A two-minute routine they had completed together countless times before, never leaving the tent until they were fully kitted out. When they were done David picked up his webbing, rifle and binoculars before following Damo outside.
They had spent the night in a camp not far from their base, the Purungat Outpost on the western edge of the Maasai Mara Reserve. David had thought about going back to the crumbling outpost for the night but there seemed little point. With broken windows, collapsed ceilings and no running water or sanitation they might as well stay closer to the elephants. Lack of funding was crippling their efforts to maintain the Park, half of the time staff weren’t paid and didn’t bother turning up for work. David’s team were one of the few still fully operational.
There was still a General Service Unit base near to Oloolola Gate, the paramilitary wing of the Kenyan police. The place was usually deserted and they didn’t venture out. Crime was on the increase and the roads and Parks facilities had fallen into a state of disrepair, but nobody seemed to care. No matter how many requests he sent through to headquarters for new equipment or staff, they didn’t arrive. David was beating his head against a brick wall and knew that they were fighting a losing battle. These days only one third of the Mara Triangle was safe for tourists. The rest was a no-go zone that most of the rangers avoided. He couldn’t blame them they were outnumbered and outgunned.
Most of his time was spent policing the Park, arresting petty criminals and cattle rustlers instead of protecting the wildlife.
The camp they were staying in was one of many dotted along the Tanzanian border. A clearing surrounded by a thick boma of acacia bushes, sat on a rocky escarpment that overlooked the Serengeti and the limit of David’s jurisdiction. He threw some kindling onto the smouldering ashes of the campfire before adding a couple of thinner logs from the stockpile. The seasoned wood was light and crisp after a couple of years drying in the sun. Within seconds the fire burst into life and flames engulfed the branches.
David walked over to the barrier of thorns and pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his hand to protect it. He grabbed hold of one of the branches and dragged out a three-foot wide section not interwoven with the rest of the boma. He walked through the gap that acted as the entrance, his rifle held loosely in front of him as a precaution. It would be unusual for any predators to be this close to the camp with daylight approaching, but not unheard of.
He wandered over the edge of the rocks and looked down. A thin blanket of grey mist shimmered over the veldt below, heaving and rolling between the trees as if the land itself was taking shallow breaths.
David shouldered his Heckler & Koch sniper rifle and lifted his field glasses from his chest. He scanned along the dried up riverbed to the east, hoping that the elephants were heading back into the relative sanctuary of the park. But they weren’t. It took him a while to find them, just their backs poking through the mist. Moving like boats on water, leaving wispy trails in their wake. They must have gone left at the fork in the river during the night and were heading southwest in the worst possible direction. Along the meandering Mara River that loosely marked the border and the edge of the National Park. Half of the loops in the river belonged to the Kenyan side, the rest to Tanzania.
At points it was difficult even for David to be a hundred percent certain which country he was in. It was a favourite killing ground for the poachers at this time of year. When the waters were low and the riverbed easy to cross. A short dash and they were in the safety of the Serengeti where David and the other Rangers weren’t allowed to follow.
He put down the binoculars. They had better get moving. The herd was already a few miles away and getting further with every minute he wasted. By the time he got back to the fire Damo had already boiled the water and was making the maize meal porridge. He was adding honey from a jar to the pan, sweetening the mixture.
He looked up as David approached and raised an eyebrow, “I thought that you were going to put the water on?”
“I went to check on the herd, they’re moving south along the river.” David sat down next to Chege, the radio operator, and greeted him with a nod. A beast of a man with legs like tree trunks and a ready smile who seemed not to notice the extra weight he carried.
Damo’s expression changed and the men’s chatter died out as the mood turned serious. After wolfing down the porridge they packed away the tents and left the bona.
Dawn came in pastel shades of pink and blue as David led the six-man team along the rim of the escarpment to the track going down to the river. The rest of his squad were carrying AK47s, even Chege who was keeping up the rear. Russian bought machine guns to match the poachers’ firepower. It also meant that they could use most of the ammunition recovered, as the Kalashnikovs were their enemy’s favoured weapon.
A group of rock dassie had emerged to bask in the morning sun. David knew them by their Swahili name ‘pimbi’. Fat rodents the size of a rabbit. Like mongoose they posted a lookout to guard against attacks from eagles, caracals and puff adders. Apparently scientists had proven that their closest living relatives were actually elephants. Something to do with the proportion of their limbs to their body and snout, but looking at them David found it difficult to believe. They looked more like oversized rats. The tawny grey sentry let out a trill whistle as they approached and then started barking to alert the others. In a heartbeat they disappeared under rocks and into crevices.
Once they negotiated the treacherous slope and made it down to the riverbed David increased the pace to a steady trot. What was left of the river, a ribbon of water about twelve feet wide and knee deep, snaked its way through the sand and shingle from one side to the other. He followed the left hand bank, keeping an eye out for crocodiles and hippos. Most of the water was too shallow except in the bends of the river where it collected to form deeper pools. They passed a family of five hippos, just their backs, the pinks of their ears and flaring nostrils showing above the surface. As they got closer a turtle riding the back of one of the adults slipped into the water. The large bull with yellow rotten teeth yawned lazily, snapping its tremendous jaws together like a steel trap and sending a spray of water in their direction.
Tall trees lined the banks of the river, a mixture of cedar, juniper and the odd weeping willow. White-bellied Go-away-birds made repeated calls of ‘gwa, gwa’ as they flew from tree to tree.
Suddenly the rat-a-tat of machine guns firing in the distance sent the birds squawking from the canopy. David stopped and held his arm up, waiting for another volley so he could get a bearing. Seconds later there was another burst, the familiar sound of an AK47, it confirmed his fears that it was coming from further down the river.
He threw Damo a worried look. “Tell Chege to radio it in and catch us up, sounds like they’re four or five miles south of here. Tell them we need the spotter plane.” He guessed that the shots were coming from about two miles further southwest than he had seen the elephants earlier. Near the point where a large sweeping bend took the river into Tanzania for a few miles before turning back across the border. David didn’t wait for the order to be passed on. He started running towards the gunfire.
Although only five miles as the crow flies the twisting route they were forced to take along the river was almost triple that. David checked over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure that the men following him were keeping up. He needn’t have worried. They were conditioned to running with their twenty-five kilogram loads and took on water from the flasks in their webbing as they went. His legs were burning and a patch of sweat covered his back by the time they found them. Almost three hours after the shots were fired.
He saw the vultures first, circling above a clearing next to the banks. Then he rounded the bend and could see the carnage spread out before him.
They had left the calf alive, barely six months old she still had her milk teeth. Her tusks wouldn’t start to grow and replace them until she was twelve months old so they had saved their bullets. She nudged the butchered carcass of her mother with her trunk, trying to get her to wake up.
David had seen dead bulls a few days after their tusks were removed, deflated skin and bones once the scavengers were finished. But never a whole family freshly slaughtered like this. Even the foot long stumps of the two-year old calves had been cut from their bullet-ridden corpses. As he got closer the stench of death got worse, the bloated bodies emitting foul smelling gasses as they quickly expanded in the heat. The earth around them was stained with blood, pools of the stuff collecting around trunks. Bellies covered in urine and excrement where the great mammals had defecated for the last time.
The legs of the younger elephants were sticking up in the air where the poachers had rolled them onto their backs to get at the ivory more easily. In order to save time they had mutilated them, hacking back half their faces with machetes and axes to get at the roots of the tusks. One of the elder cows’ trunks had been sliced off completely. Presumably it had been in the way, hanging over the overgrown incisor that was both the elephant’s greatest asset and her Achilles’ heel.
Nature’s opportunists had beaten them to it. A pack of black-backed jackals and dozens of vultures were already tearing at the carcasses. Snapping and pecking at each other to get their heads and necks into the gaping head wounds and soft grey underbellies of the elephants.
David swallowed the excess saliva his mouth was producing and the urge to vomit. He fired a single round into the air that sent the jackals scampering for cover and the vultures into flight.
He turned to face the others. Chege, usually the most jovial of the group, was openly crying, silent tears running down his flat cheeks. David felt a lump in his throat and realised that his eyes were also threatening to overflow. He wiped at them with his sleeve.
“Chege call in the location and ask them where the hell the spotter plane is. Damo you come with me. The rest of you spread out and find the trail, they can’t have got far.”
Weighing over sixty kilos each the matriarch’s tusks would need two strong men to carry them. David walked with Damo along the bank near to the killing ground. It didn’t take them long to find the tracks. As he feared they headed across the river. Around twenty men carrying heavy loads, their feet had sunk deep into the sand. Two of the men had dragged a large tusk behind them as they struggled through the mud on the other side of the shallow water.
David stared across the bank and then made up his mind. He took a step forward but felt Damo’s hand on his shoulder holding him back.
“Don’t even think about it David.”
He pulled away from his friend’s grip, “I can’t just let them go, not this time.”
“You have to,” said Damo softly, “Orders are orders. If we get caught it’ll start an international incident. Besides, there’s just too many of them.”
He knew that Damo was right but that didn’t make it any easier. David could feel the tightness in his chest, the bile rising up from his stomach. He fell to his knees and was violently sick.
Kilindini Port, Mombasa
August 10th, 1996
Maliki turned his back to the cargo ships and peered up at the industrial estate behind the port. He smiled to himself, thinking how much the landscape had changed and how different his life was since the first time he arrived in Mombasa over thirty years ago. The fields and the shepherd’s hut he had sheltered in after jumping from the train were long gone. The land between Kilindini Harbour and the town was now filled with row upon row of new warehouses, even the abandoned kerosene store that he lived in with Jozi for over a year had been torn down and replaced.
His smile evaporated as he checked the time on his gold Rolex, Gupta was late. The corner of his mouth twitched where the scar met his lip. A sure sign that he was irritated. He looked at his reflection in the window of the Mercedes saloon. The welts on his face were pronounced purple lines that stretched the skin around them making it itch constantly. He rubbed his cheek to relieve the sensation, the scar tissue dead to his touch. The three parallel ridges of puckered darker flesh that marked the passage of the lion’s claws ran from above his right ear down to his chin. The top one only just missed his eye and ended level with his nose, the bottom one passed where the tip of his ear used to be.
As if on cue the first of the Bedford trucks appeared at the top of the causeway and headed down towards the docks. Gupta waved as they drove past him into the open warehouse. Maliki nodded to Lembui, one of his personal bodyguards, and then followed them in. Lembui stayed a few dutiful paces behind him, his right hand resting on the Glock hidden under his undersized sports jacket.
‘EAST AFRICA TIMBER COMPANY’, one of his many legitimate enterprises, was emblazoned in bold red letters on a yellow background. Both on the sides of the trucks and above the roller shutter doors. Deepak Gupta jumped down from the cab of the last truck and dusted of his dirty white robes. The electric motors whirred into action as the doors were shut behind him, the strobe lights flickered before illuminated the huge warehouse in a harsh glow.
Gupta smiled, tobacco stained teeth above a straggly grey beard that tapered off to a point where it touched his chest. Yellowed around his mouth from excessive smoking. “Peace be with you my friend.”
“You’re late!” grunted Maliki, “Where the hell have you been?” Maliki didn’t trust the turbaned fool as far as he could throw him. Their relationship was based on mutual greed and fear, Gupta’s fear. He was pleased to see the man flinch and shrink away from him.
“The rains have washed away some of the roads near Moshi. One of the trucks got stuck and it took us hours to find another way around.”
Maliki knew the roads south of Mt Kilimanjaro better than anyone having made the trip many times himself in the early years. The foothills of crumbling volcanic rocks were treacherous during the rainy season, landslides commonplace. But it avoided the busier route through Nairobi and was the quickest and safest way to get their precious cargo to Mombasa. He could have used the port in Dar-es-Salaam but that would have meant employing a third party and losing a good chunk of the profits. As well as control, which was something Maliki cherished. He preferred to keep their operations based in Kenya where his influence extended deep into the government.
“Any problem with the border guards in Holili?”
“No they were expecting us as you said.”
Maliki nodded. Fifty thousand shillings, just under one thousand US dollars, was a small price to pay for safe passage across the border. A fortune to the two guards it was split between, the cash equivalent to three months regular wages.
“Good,” Maliki gestured towards the trucks, “How was the hunting?”
“Plenty of ivory,” Gupta looked at his feet nervously, “but we didn’t see any rhino this time.”
Maliki’s lip started to twitch, “I told you what I needed? What the buyer wants?”
“Yes,” his pupils dilated and Gupta started to tremble, “You also told me that there would be no Rangers in the area. Otherwise we would have stayed longer.”
“Rangers...did you see them?” The news surprised Maliki. According to his sources the nearest member of the Kenyan Wildlife Service should have been twenty miles north, at their base camp in the middle of the Masai Mara triangle.
Gupta shook his head slowly, “No but we heard them fire a shot less than an hour after we left the elephants. We were only a couple of miles away.”
That was too close for comfort, the last thing Maliki needed was for Gupta to get caught. The man would probably sing like a canary to save his own skin. Maliki made a mental note to ensure that it never happened again. He would speak to his informant when he got back to Nairobi in the morning.
“What were they shooting at?"
Gupta shrugged his skinny shoulders, “Who knows? At least it wasn’t us.”
Maliki was suspicious but he let it go for the moment, they needed to get the shipment inspected before loading it on to the container. “Tell your men to hurry up, the ship starts taking on cargo in six hours.”
“Chop, chop!” Gupta clapped his hands and shouted, “Or nobody gets paid.”
The seven men were working as fast as they could, the first pallet already being unloaded by a forklift from the back of a truck. Nevertheless the men undoing the canvas seemed to move quicker with the ropes and another scurried across the loading area to start the other forklift.
Maliki walked around to the other side of the trucks. Aisles of timber where stacked out on pallets before him disappearing off into the warehouse, a bounty of hardwood ready for export to China, including iroko and bubinga but mostly mahogany.
Next to them an empty container sat on an eighteen-wheeler ready to be driven out into the port once it was full. The first pallet of six by two inch timber planks was put down for inspection. Maliki waited for the men to cut the steel straps and remove the top few layers of planks before walking over.
One of them used a crowbar to open the crate that was hidden inside. What looked like a full pallet of stacked timber really consisted of two rows of planks either side of the crate and short cut pieces at the ends.
The crate was filled with ivory. Each one was a different size and shape, a mixture of creamy alabasters and pearlescent whites. Patches of blood bore evidence of the violent way in which they had been removed from their owners. Nearly all of them measured less than a meter, taken from females or young males, a few just over a foot in length that once belonged to calves. Only one pair of scimitar shaped shafts belonged to an older bull, worn with age and stained dark with vegetable juices.
Maliki nodded and the crate was re-sealed and placed into the container whilst the next one was dropped onto the ground and made ready to be checked.
Each truck carried four pallets. In all but one there was around half a ton of ivory. The last one contained thirty-three rhino horns. The buyer had asked for thirty-five. Maliki would have to make it up in the next shipment, there were none left in their stockpile in Karatu.
Since branching out into the pharmaceutical business Wei’s lust for rhino seemed insatiable. Maliki allowed himself the briefest of smiles. A bit like the horny little bugger’s appetite for sex, the market for Viagra was expanding at an exponential rate. Rhino horn was the key ingredient.
“Everything OK, boss?”
He turned to face Gupta, “So far.”
Maliki remained poker faced, hiding his excitement well. The price would be comparatively low because of the amount of poor grade immature ivory but he should still get $120 per kilo. Nine hundred thousand US dollars, but the rhino horn was where the real money was. One crate of the black gold was worth more than the fifteen crates of ivory put together. Taking an average price of $30,000 per horn he would get $990,000. He smiled, why not call it a cool million, he was sure that Wei wouldn’t protest. He knew the greedy little bugger would get as much as ten times that on the black market in Guangdong. Where it would be sold to one of the many carving factories owned and run by the Chinese government.
Minus his costs, which included Gupta and his gang’s $80,000 fee, he should make a tidy profit of 1.75 million dollars. Maliki rubbed his hands together, not bad for one shipment. Wei would transfer half the money to his Swiss bank account once Maliki confirmed that the ‘VENTURA’ had left port, a Spanish registered ship out of Barcelona. The remaining half would be wired to him once the cargo reached the docks in Hong Kong, by way of Singapore.
After three hours of going through the inventory they resealed the final crate and the pallet was loaded with the others into the front part of the container. The empty space was then filled with normal pallets that only contained wooden planks. Any Customs officer outside either his or Wei’s payroll who decided to inspect the container would probably give up before reaching the hidden loot.
Maliki watched the steel doors get bolted shut and the padlock put in place before he turned to Gupta.
“I guess you want paying?” Maliki reached inside his Brioni suit jacket. The Italian cerruti cloth was tailored to fit his long sinewy arms and legs perfectly. Gupta cowered and took a step backwards. Maliki grinned with pleasure. He could feel himself getting hard. “Don’t worry it’s only your money.”
He produced the thick manila envelope containing forty thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills and held it out towards Gupta. The man’s eyes lit up and he held his palms together as if in prayer.
“Thank you boss,” Gupta put both hands on the packet and tried to take it. Maliki didn’t let go.
He stared into the man’s eyes, “Next time make sure that you bring me more rhino horn or I won’t be happy.” He spoke slowly and softly to emphasise his words, Gupta’s arms started to tremble. “Do you understand?”
The idiot bobbed his head repeatedly and Maliki let go of the envelope. Gupta had better deliver next time or his body would be dumped into Kilindini Harbour and one of the other men promoted to fill his boots. They both knew that rhino were scarcer and harder to find than elephants. Gupta was deliberately concentrating on ivory, as it was quicker and easier for him to fill the crates.
Maliki nodded towards the door, “Now get lost and move those trucks out the way.” Gupta was counting the money, “I said get lost!”
Gupta stuffed the money back inside the envelope and it magically disappeared inside the folds of his robes. He put two fingers in his mouth and made a loud wolf whistle.
Most of the men were already waiting in the trucks but the ones that weren’t put out their cigarettes and jumped inside. Engines sparked into life, exhausts coughed and spluttered. Gupta hurried over to join them.
Lembui opened the doors and within minutes they were gone, nothing but diesel fumes in the warehouse to mark their presence. Maliki walked over to the doors and took one last look back at the container. A pair of the factory’s regular employees would be along in a couple of hours to drive the trailer out onto the docks, completely unaware of the more precious cargo hidden inside.
Maliki glanced out across Kilindini Harbour to Mtongwe where the ferry was docking, a mixture of a dozen cars and small trucks on its open deck ready to disembark. Dancing lights reflected on the water from the expensive villas that occupied the shoreline on the other side of the half-mile expanse of the water. Behind them the lighter coloured tin roofs of the shantytown glowed brighter than their neighbours. The rusty red and grey-white buildings were squeezed so close together that they appeared to be one continuous patchwork quilt stretching off into the distance.
Without warning the wind suddenly picked up and the taller palm trees began to sway back and forth above the port. Clinging on to rocky slopes for dear life. Maliki could feel the change in pressure and smell the rain on the air before the monsoon hit. Within seconds thick black clouds covered the moon and the heavens opened up. Huge globules of water the size of his thumbnail combined in such numbers that they formed an impenetrable wall, pelting the pavement with rapid-fire.
Sabore, his other Maasai bodyguard and driver, appeared through the downpour with an umbrella. He held it above Maliki’s head and escorted him back to the car. He felt safer once he was shut inside the bulletproof glass and armour plating. The S500 was kitted out with a 5.0L V8 engine to pull the extra thousand kilograms of weight. The modifications had cost Maliki $120,000 but they were worth every cent. A close range assassination attempt by the Kiambu Mafia earlier in the year would have succeeded if it weren’t for his shrewd investment.
A bright flash lit up the sky as lightning struck land somewhere beyond Mtongwe, followed by a long rolling rumble of thunder seconds later. The cannon-like explosion and raindrops beat out a staccato rhythm on the roof of the Mercedes as it accelerated along the dockside. The loading of food and supplies for the crew of the VENTURA was already under way. Spanish deckhands in their Sou’westers and locals dressed in robes leaning against the wind in the torrential rain to get the job done. The cargo ships at anchor and dhows unlucky enough to be caught out in the storm had disappeared from view. Swallowed up by a black shroud of water.
He could make out the huge cylindrical storage tanks at the Changamwe Oil Refinery on his right but that was about all. They sped over the bridge onto the mainland. Maliki lay back in the leather seat as they left the port behind them and prepared himself for the long drive back to Nairobi.