“This will make one hell of a story, David.”
He stared at her for a while. “I don’t want you to do it, Chrissie.”
“What? Are you out of your mind? With the information on that computer, I can expose the whole damn lot of them. All I have to do is break the secret codes and I’ll have all the names of those they worked on!” She made a gesture with her hands. “And the ones still waiting to be serviced.”
“Sure. Then what?”
“What do you mean, then what?” She turned and walked toward the window.
“Chrissie, do you know who these people are? Expose them, and your life won’t be worth a dime!” He rose as the sound of helicopter rotors reached them.
David leaned back against the seat of the Airbus. His mind was occupied with the contents of a fax he had received from Jürgen Möller. They both had been big game hunters. Whatever there was to learn about hunting, David had learned from Möller. A tragic accident during a culling expedition had brought their safaris to an end. The vehicle they had been travelling in had overturned, and Jürgen’s legs were pinned under the Jeep for almost an hour before a second hunting party helped free him. He lost the use of his legs and was confined to a wheelchair. David, who’d been driving, sustained minor injuries, though he was hospitalised for three weeks with a broken leg, cracked ribs, and a concussion.
Jürgen spent six months in hospital, during which time David and Jürgen’s lady friend Mia had taken care of the business. They tried to talk Jürgen into selling and moving to Europe when he was discharged from hospital. Despite his handicap, Jürgen refused to leave his beloved wilderness and spent most of his time afterward writing books about the different cultures and wildlife of the African bush, becoming a well-known name in the field.
A year after the accident, David traded his rifle for a camera. He began travelling the world and eventually settled in the United States. He took a solemn oath never to hunt animals again. Therefore, he found Jürgen’s request somewhat odd—to visit him in Africa to hunt down a lion.
A man-killer beast. At first, David thought his friend was joking, but the fax, that followed, convinced him the man was serious. He agreed. Should he go to Africa, the only shooting he would do, would be with his camera. Jürgen didn’t argue, and David left on the first flight from the States to Africa. They could further discuss the matter after his arrival in Africa. David had already had a trip to Africa in mind; therefore, he accepted the invitation.
* * *
His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the stewardess announcing their descent for Lusaka Airport. His muscles felt stiff after the long flight as he peered out the window, straightening the backrest and fastening his seatbelt. The African landscape slid past like a huge carpet of wonderful colours as the plane lowered to line up with the runway. Despite the strain of the flight, he felt excited. He was back in a country he loved. The tranquillity of the African bush always had a peaceful effect on him. He watched as his luggage was transferred to the King Air, used for ad hoc charters to points not served by the feeder airlines. He’d changed into khaki shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, and comfortable hiking boots. A new flat brim felt hat—the Stetson of Africa, which he had purchased from a curio shop—completed his ensemble. He had to praise Mia for her efficiency. She had taken care of all his travelling arrangements. He wondered why Jürgen never married the woman. They had been living together for the past fifteen years. She had been a Zoology student who bade farewell to her studies in favour of a life in the bush. She moved in with Jürgen and had seemed happy ever since.
* * *
David turned as he became aware of someone behind him.
“Are you my passenger?”
David glanced at the tall black male wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt with the slogan of a freedom fighter printed on the front. A pair of Ray Bans sat askew on his nose.
“If you’re the pilot, I’m your passenger,” he replied in the same abrupt manner.
“Yes, I’m the pilot. We’ll be leaving soon.”
He brushed past David and inspected the netting securing the cargo. David watched with interest as the man completed the pre-flight checks on the aircraft. He recalled doing it himself when he was a fighter pilot for the South African Air Force. He had converted from Mirage Cheetah fighter planes, to twin engine light aircraft after he completed his military training and became a safari leader. That was how he had met Jürgen, who was already an established big game hunter with a strong foreign clientele. The ground proceedings ended, and the King Air took to the sky. It was clear to David the pilot knew how to handle the aircraft. The take-off was smooth and stable. They were heading in a north-easterly direction, and David—preoccupied with his own thoughts—turned his head as the pilot broke the silence.
“Are you a hunter?”
“Yes. You can call me that.”
“Where are your guns?”
“I hunt with the camera.” David chuckled dryly. The man frowned, puzzled by the statement. David left him in the dark a while longer before he explained. “I’m a photographer. You know? Pictures? I take pictures.”
David wasn’t sure if the man would know what he was talking about. He therefore used the term normally referred to by the black people when it came to photographs. He also said it with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.
“Oh, I see.” He chuckled at his own ignorance and clicked his tongue. “What pictures do you take? War pictures?”
David shook his head in frustration. He tried to keep his voice as level as possible. “No. I’m not a newspaper reporter. I’m a wildlife photographer. I take photographs of wild animals for magazines.”
The pilot glanced at him across the rim of his Ray Bans. “Did you come here for pictures?”
“Yes.” David sighed in relief as the man turned his head away, glancing at the instrument display. His sudden lack of interest in David was short lived.
“Why don’t you shoot with a gun? Don’t you like guns?
“Look, if I have to fire a gun, I will. I try to avoid it. What about you?”
“Who, me?” He adjusted the Ray Bans and continued with a self-important attitude. “I like guns. I was a fighter pilot. I used to fly MiGs during the war.”
“Oh, you did?”
“Yes. Did you know, MiG pilots are the best in the world?”
“If the thought satisfies you, then who am I to argue?”
“You don’t argue? You agree with me?”
“Yes. I agree with you.”
He laughed disrespectfully. “You agree with me, but you know nothing. You are a photographer. Me, I’m a soldier. I know what I’m talking about. Can you fly a plane?”
“No. I leave that for brave people, like yourself.” David could not understand the man’s hostile behaviour. Could it perhaps be a scar which had been left on him by the war? He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the headrest. The only sound which filled the cockpit was the monotonous drone from the engines. When he opened his eyes again, the pilot had altered the flight path. David’s ear drums protested at the sudden change of altitude. He sat up and glanced at his watch. They had been in the air just under two hours. He stared out the window as they approached the narrow grass landing strip near a small town.
The windsock draped motionlessly from its mast. He saw a Land Rover with someone leaning against the fender as they touched down. The plane bounced across the rough surface as the pilot reduced the engine revs and applied brakes. The King Air came to a halt, metres away from the parked vehicle. David recognised the round face and broad smile as the figure at the Land Rover came into motion.
Nafta’s broad chest and shoulders reminded him of the body of a full-grown gorilla. His arms were as thick as a man’s thigh. David noticed the man had developed a bit of a paunch since they had last met. The rest of him was still pure muscle. They embraced as David landed on the ground.
“Nafta! I greet you my friend.”
“I greet you too, Davie!
David tapped him lightly on his paunch.
“Getting a bit big around the waist, I see.”
Nafta laughed loud as he stroked his belly with his big hands. They removed David’s luggage from the plane, and the pilot took to the air without further ado.
“So, tell me, old friend, is everybody still well?”
“Very well, Davie.”
They had a lot of catching up to do. The hour’s drive felt like minutes to David when they arrived at the homestead amongst the age-old forest giants near the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. David had never met a more pleasant person than Nafta when it came to conversation. The only subject Nafta had not mentioned, was the so-called man-killer. David decided not to touch on it until he had spoken to Jürgen. Mia was the first to reach the vehicle.
“Davie, you are here!” She greeted him with kisses before he could utter a word. Jürgen appeared in the door with his wheelchair.
“Good heavens, Frau, give the man a chance to get out of the car!”
“Hallo, Mia.” She clung to his arm as they walked toward the door.
“Come in, Davie. Man, you haven’t changed a bit!” His eyes sparkled behind the silver-framed glasses.
“You still look the same as always, you old jackal. How are you?”
The German laughed spontaneously behind his beard. “Much better now that you’re here.”
David was surprised to notice the man’s grip was still as firm as ever. Jürgen moved the wheelchair out of the way.
“Come in, come in. Frau, is the coffee ready?”
That was tradition here: coffee, which reminded David of jet fuel. He had tried to calculate how many cups of the strong brew the man consumed per day, but had stopped counting. Nothing seemed to have changed in the ten years he had been away. The large kitchen, with its gas stove and dark teakwood table and chairs were still there, as he remembered. The pleasant aroma of freshly baked German scones filled the room. He suddenly felt at home again. Jürgen manoeuvred the wheelchair toward the table. David took a seat opposite him. It was a good hour later when they moved to the thatched gondola next to the swimming pool. Jürgen had said nothing about the reason he had summoned David to Africa. David knew the man well enough not to push him. It was after the second home-brew lager, a technique which the man had perfected to the finest standard, when he tactfully brought up the subject.
“I’m glad you could come, Davie. I couldn’t say too much in the fax. That’s why I wanted you here. In fact, I was asked by the authorities to contact you.” He let his words hang in the air for a while before he continued. “They are on panic stations.”
“What’s going on? Surely, their rangers can pick up the beast’s trail and take him out.”
“They’ve tried. Believe me, Davie, they’ve tried. They can’t find a thing on this animal. No tracks, or even the slightest bit of scent. They’ve tried with the best hunting dogs they have, even that didn’t help.”
“How can that be? Are they sure it’s a lion who’s doing the killings? By the way, who got killed?”
“It’s a lion, all right. I saw the bodies. A hunter from Australia and a student from Belgium.”
David sat silently for a few moments. He glanced at Mia and winked at her before he continued. “Have they searched the trees? Maybe this lion has learned to fly.”
Jürgen uttered a sound of frustration. “Don’t joke about this, David. What I’m telling you is the truth. There’s a dangerous animal out there and it must be stopped. That’s why you’re here. You must do it; I can’t. I’m stuck in this damn chair!” He reached into the cooler box for two more beers.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to doubt what you’re saying. It just sounds so damn strange. I mean, you and I have both seen lion killings. I agree, not where humans were taken out, but still, a killing is a killing. There must be a way to get a track on this animal. We also know that in most cases, only old worn down animals will go for man. It just sounds too weird to me.”
“I know.” He passed David a beer. “Be honest now. Doesn’t it excite you a little to think you might be the one who can stop this beast?” He filled his glass as he peered across his spectacles. “Just a little?”
David couldn’t hide his smile. Jürgen knew how to push the buttons. The expression on the bearded face was enough to make him decide he would do what his friend expected from him. He slurped the froth from his beer and licked his lips.
“Like I said. I will try to find this animal, as long as I don’t have to kill it.”
Jürgen stared at him for quite a while. “What if you have to? What if you come face to face with it, and it’s you or him? Do you think he’ll pose for you and say cheese, take as many photos as you want? Come now, Davie. You know as well as I do, it doesn’t work like that. The Winchester is still in the same condition as the day you left it. I took good care of it while you were away. I think it’s high time someone feeds some lead through it again. I have loaded enough fresh rounds for you to practise before you go out there.”
David had to agree. His friend was right. If he decided to take on the job, he had to carry a gun, and be prepared to use it. Tracking a big cat was not something which compared with an early morning jog in the park. He downed the beer and glanced at the pool.
“All right. We can talk again later, but now I’m going to get into the pool. Not even a lion will stop me.”
Jürgen laughed as he reached for another beer.
“I knew you would do it. What did I tell you, Frau? He still has it in his blood.”
He watched David walk toward the thatched roof bungalow to change into his swimming trunks.