South Africa Part 3 by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Journeys Series are the creation of the author.
Thank you to Lisa, Inga and Susan who patiently edit all these stories for me. It is time consuming work and I greatly appreciate their efforts.
Note: The author has worked in or visited all of the countries in this series. The political situations, topography, cultures and wildlife are as accurate as the author could make them.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Check out "Anne Azel's World" at <http://www.azel.nru.com.au>
Thank you Jo for this wonderful web page!
In the early light, Danny Agia stood at the edge of the blacken, smouldering ruins of the home that had been in her family for seven generations. The old, dry timber and thatched roof had blazed in a massive fireball and then had burned away to red embers. There had not been time to save anything. The fire marshal felt that there was reason to be suspicious. The fire appeared to have started in several places.
"Come away, Danielle Agia," came Charles Abute's gentle voice. "You can do nothing here and I do not want to see you burnt."
"Where is Fortune?" Danny asked through her shock and exhaustion.
"Lying down. The doctor has given him something. He must go for tests. The doctor feels he might have had a small heart attack."
Danny nodded. She had a vague memory of leaping from the helicopter and running over to the already dying flames that had once been the beautiful manor house of her family. She was aware that Fortune had been trying to talk to her, to stop her from rushing into the fire. Then he had collapsed against her and it had been Danny who had carried the small, wiry man clear of the smoke and flame.
"I am sorry."
"It was not your fault, Danielle. He is an old man and he loved this house. Its loss has broken his heart."
Danny swallowed and blinked back tears. "And mine. I must see the insurance people...the police...fire...I don't know," she started, running a shaky hand through her hair. " I'll have to find the safe. All the papers are in the safe, Charles."
"I will look for it as soon as the fire department will allow us to enter the ruins. In the meantime, I will see to things, Danielle Agia. You need to get some rest. You come with me to my house. My wife, Charm, will make you tea and some bread and butter. Then you will do me the honour of resting under my roof. Later, I will come for you and we will see to things."
Danny nodded and let Charles lead her over to his home, his arm around her, knowing she grieved for this building as much as she would for the loss of a family member. He knew she had driven at break neck speeds through the night to get to Sibasa where she could hire a jet helicopter to get her here. By the time she had arrived, there was nothing left but a few black and twisted timbers standing guard over an open burning wound.
Danny did not wake until the early afternoon. At first, she thought she had been dreaming and then the rancid smell of wet, burnt wood filled her consciousness. Tears welled in her eyes and she wiped them away with a shaky hand. There were things to do. She couldn't fall apart over this.
She lay blinking at the ceiling and trying to piece the last twenty-four hours together in her mind.
For a second, she couldn't even remember how she had gotten here. Then the events of the night before slowly seeped back into her shocked mind. She had gone with the ranger and used his radio to contact Fortune and on hearing the news had taken his jeep and ridden like a mad thing to Sibasa to pick up a helicopter that Fortune had sent. Dear God! Had she told Laurie? She reached up and rubbed her dry, tired eyes. She couldn't remember.
"She's left? When, why, what's going on?!" Laurie demanded of the startled Ranger, who stopped nervously at her cabin door.
"I am sorry, Ms. Allen. I do not have any details. Her home was on fire and her manager, Fortune Abute, had sent a helicopter to pick her up at Sibasa. She took my jeep and left about one hour ago."
Laurie ran a shaky hand through her hair, taking a few seconds to calm herself. It was senseless to get upset with the poor ranger. "Did she leave a message or anything?" she asked briskly.
"Did she ask you to come and tell me?"
"No. But my wife, when I tell her of the events, she tells me to come here and let you know."
Laurie nodded, outwardly seeming annoyed but calm. "Thank you. I do appreciate that. Please let your wife know I am grateful. I was sitting up waiting for my friend to return."
The ranger looked relieved that the European woman did not seem angry anymore. It was bad enough that his wife was angry at him for letting Danielle Agia take the jeep. What was he to do? Agia was a very important person who sat on the board that governed the park.
His wife did not understand. She had told him sharply that white South Africans could not boss them around anymore. That South Africa was theirs again now and people like Danielle Agia would have to get used to living in a black South Africa or go back to whatever country her family had originally come from.
The ranger sighed as he headed back to his own home, having said good night to the Canadian woman. It didn't matter what colour your skin was, money talks and Agia had lots of money. Maybe someday, it would be blacks who had that money, but he didn't figure it would change things much. He would still have to take orders from someone. Besides, Agia, although from one of the oldest Boer families in South Africa, was known to have supported political reform. She was a good white not a racist. As far as his wife was concerned, however, there were no good whites.
Laurie Allen slammed around the cabin in anger. She had thought that she and Danny had been getting on really well. And then the damn woman takes off and leaves her behind! Did Danny think that Laurie would not care that the manor was on fire?! Did she not realize that Laurie would want to know? Be there to support her? Damn Danielle Agia all to hell anyway!
Making this trip had been a big mistake. Danny was never going to love her like she did Danny. Danny was never going to get over her conservative Boer upbringing, and she was certainly not going to ever leave South Africa. To hell with her! Laurie was going to spend the rest of her time focusing her energies on her articles and forget about the childhood crush she had on Danielle Agia! She slumped down in a chair then and let the tears come. Hard, painful sobs that shook her body. She cried for the loss of a beautiful home and its place in history, she cried for Danny, and she cried for the end of a dream of love that she had cherished since she had left South Africa years ago.
Rod Gillery had wanted to kill Hector when the black South African had phoned bragging through a drunken stupor about burning Agia's home to the ground. But having thought about it, he realized that Hector's pathetic need for revenge had triggered an excellent turn of events.
According to Hector only Danny had returned in the helicopter. That meant that Laurie Allen was probably still in Kruger Park and no longer under the protective wing of Agia. He needed to move fast. First thing was to check the park reservations and find out where Allen was. Then he would make contact. Once he had Allen as bait, he knew that Danielle Agia would walk right into his trap. Agia had always had a soft spot for Allen. They were like sisters as kids. Upset by the loss of her home and taken by surprise at Allen's disappearance, Agia would not be at her best. This time the bitch would make a mistake and they would be rid of her.
It was going to be a real shame when he had to report having found the bodies of Agia and Allen. He imagined the interview with the media as he reconstructed the story of how the two had foolishly camped out and had been attacked by a lion. A sad accident, he could hear himself saying. Of course to the police, he would be more graphic, explaining that the two had gone camping to be alone because they were a couple of perverts. The police would accept that story where they might not believe that one of the best guides in Africa would be so stupid as to camp out alone in a known lion area.
Rod Gillery smiled as he put his Landrover into gear to head to the Paul Kruger Gate to check the park's computerized records of cabin reservations. They would still have to be very careful. Agia would be like a wounded animal now, dangerous and unpredictable. Danny was deadly enough at the best of times. No, they must not let their guard down. Gillery's face hardened into cruel lines. This was it. He knew that Agia was determined to help Park Rangers stop poachers like him. The battle lines were drawn. It was going to be him or Agia and he planned on it not being him. Besides, the bitch had made a fool out of him by ending their engagement years ago. She had it coming.
Danny sat curled up in the corner of the couch that she had slept on last night, a mug of tea in her hand. Charles Abute sat in a big easy chair across from her looking tired but calm. "We'll need to get that mess cleaned up..."
"Yes," nodded Abute, "but not yet, Danielle. I know it is important to you but the harvest must come first. A month will make no difference. I have had some of the men string a wire fence around the ruins and I'll post a man there at night to make sure we don't have any trouble with souvenir collectors, not that there is much left." He sighed sadly.
Danny nodded. "You are right. I'm not thinking. Yes, the harvest must come first. We will have to get the safe out though..."
Fortune held up his hand to stop her. "Already done. I asked the fire marshal about it last night, and he sent a few of his people in to pull it out of the wreckage. The papers inside were discoloured by the heat but intact. I knew you would want things sorted out as soon as possible, so I took the liberty of calling your insurance company and lawyers this morning. They are working on things now. I hope that is alright with you, Danielle."
Danielle smiled at her friend and field foreman. "You and your father have the power to make decisions about the estate in my absence . I trust your judgement completely. Thanks, Charles, I...I am glad you handled it....I...I ...," she swallowed and blinked back tears. "It is hard."
Charles nodded sadly and looked down at the floor. He had only twice seen Danielle Agia cry before, once when the Allens had left and once when her father had died. Now she had lost her home too.
Danielle cleared her voice. "How is Fortune, today? Charm told me this morning that he was still asleep."
Charles was glad for the change of subject before he embarrassed himself with crying too. The fire had been a tragic loss. He waved his hands in frustration and pulled a comical face. "Ugh! He is grumpy and bossy and has criticized everything I have done!" he said laughing.
"Oh, he has recovered and is his usual self again," Danny joked, trying hard to get back to some normality after the kick to the gut she had taken at seeing her ancestral home in ashy ruins.
"Yes, he is better!" laughed Charles. "He was asking about you."
"I will go to see him as soon as I clean up a bit," Danny promised, realizing that she hadn't even combed her hair or washed her face yet.
"This is good," nodded Charles. "Danielle, the press are here. They want an interview. I have only said that the Agia estate would make a comment when we know more and that you are waiting to hear from the authorities investigating the fire."
Danny nodded in approval. "Set up an appointment with them for later this afternoon over in the vineyard offices. I'll talk to them there and answer their questions."
"Yes, Danielle Agia," Charles said, getting to his feet to get on with his busy day.
"Thank you for everything. You and your family have been wonderful. I couldn't have managed without you."
Charles smiled, gave her a wink and walked out. Alone now, Danny put down her cup and leaned back closing her eyes. She wished that Laurie was here with her. She needed Laurie. She would have to get in touch with her as soon as possible and send the helicopter to pick her up. She should never had left her behind. The shock of learning about the fire had sent her rushing off into the night alone to deal with the emergency, falling back on the old habits of a lifetime.
She set her jaw and pushed herself to her feet. Thank God, for Fortune and Charles Abute. They had been rocks of strength and common sense over the last twenty-four hours while she had gone to pieces. But most of all, she needed Laurie here. She squared her shoulders. It was time for her to act like the Boer she was and get on with the set backs that God had put in her path to test her strength. Just like her ancestors, she would not give in. She would rebuild and be stronger.
After a shower and a change of clothes, she asked Charm if she could visit with Fortune Abute for a few minutes. The woman smiled and led her along the hall of the Allen's old house to the bedroom that she used to visit Laurie in. Fortune was sitting in bed going over the estate accounts and looking very out of sorts. "Ah! Danielle Agia, forgive an OLD man for not getting up. Yes, I KNOW I am old," Fortune continued when Charm would have protested. "A man knows he is old when his son orders HIM to bed!"
Charm rolled her eyes at Danielle and wisely left without comment.
Danny walked forward and sat on the edge of Fortune's bed taking her manager's hand. Danny's long, tanned hand inside his looked remarkably pale next to his dark skin. Fortune noticed Danny's look and laughed. "You white girls! No colour to you!"
Danny chuckled and leaned over to give Fortune a kiss on his forehead. "So how is my estate manager doing?"
Fortune sighed. "I am fine. How are you doing, Dandelion?" he asked, calling his boss by the pet name he had used for her as a child.
"I'm pretty upset," she admitted. "But you and Charles have handled things really well. Thank you. This is a blow but it would have been worse had the harvest been lost. This is nothing with God's help that we cannot over come. As soon as we can, we will rebuild the manor house. Some good will come of this, for I'll be able to modernize the kitchens and have some decent closet space," she smiled shakily.
Fortune nodded, allowing Danielle the right to her show of strength. "Where is Laurie?" Danny blushed and before she could speak, Fortune continued. "No, you didn't leave her behind?!"
Danny nodded. "I wasn't thinking."
"You don't think! You should have been using your heart!" stated Fortune, pounding his chest with his fingers in annoyance.
Danny looked up in shock and automatically went on the defensive. "What do you mean? I don't know..."
"Don't you lie under my roof, Danielle Agia! Boss or no boss, I'll do what your Daddy would have done and take you into my kitchen and wash your mouth out with soap!" snorted the old man. "It's been plain as plain can be since you were a little girl who you loved."
Danny got up and paced in annoyance around the room. "Look, Fortune. This conversation is at an end. This is dangerous talk. What you are implying is unnatural, and if my father had thought that I...he'd have killed me."
"Your father was one strict man. Some of you Boers got more religion than you got sense. You find a God, Danny, that don't like bigots that judge. One who thinks that when people love each other it is a good thing."
Danny sighed and looked in frustration at her African manager. "You can't pick and chose what you like and don't like about a religion. That is not faith, it is simply using religion as a crutch when you like and if you like. According to the Christian faith les...it's a sin."
"Sin!? You say? It's a sin to deprive yourself of happiness cause some book written a long time ago said so?"
"A book inspired by God, Fortune."
"Some God," snorted Fortune in disgust. "You listen to me, Danielle Agia, I'm your papa because your real one's dead. You forget this here burnt down house of yours, it isn't coming back, and you go after that childhood sweetheart of yours and make yourself and her happy."
"It's a sin!" Danny snapped, her patience coming to an end.
"It sure is to deprive yourself of love because of guilt." A twinkle came into the old man's eyes and he went on coyly. "Course, I'm a true African not a white imitation like you are. I gotta tell you, I wouldn't be no barnyard chicken. No Sir! If it had been a sin to marry my dear late Emma, I'd have married her anyway because burning in hell would be a small price to pay for her love here on earth."
Danny smiled despite her raw emotions. "You are an old goat."
Fortune smiled. "Might be, but I've been a happy old goat and that's more than I can say for you."
"It's different for me, Fortune. I would be ostracized."
"You mean like Laurie and her Dad were for standing up for what they believed?" Fortune said quietly, looking Danielle straight in the eye. The message was clear, yes, Danny had supported change but she had played it safe. Now she was going to play it safe again, and Fortune didn't respect her for that. Danny turned and walked out, hearing Fortune's snort of disgust as she did.
Charles Abute jumped as Danielle slammed into his office in the distillery building. He got to his feet and waited for his boss and friend to sit. Instead, she leaned over the desk and looked him squarely in the eye. "I'm going to tell you something and it is confidential, got it?"
"Oh course," he responded calmly, confused at Danielle's agitated behaviour. Danny licked her lips, swallowed, tried to speak, failed, then tried again. "I ...I ...I'm gay."
"Shit!" swore Charles in a flare of anger, kicking his chair. "Now I gotta pay my Dad ten Rand!"
Danny sank to the visitor's chair in exhaustion and looked at her old friend. "You bet I was straight against your father? Why?"
"Because, damn it, I don't want you to be gay! It gives me the creeps. Besides, you'd broken every heart in the neighbourhood so I figured you were quite the mover." Charles sighed, and sat down looking at Danny. "So why are you telling me this now?"
"Your old man got under my skin."
"Oh, he's good at that."
"Damn it, Charles, if I can't even count on you to understand...we grew up together...you know me...hell, you gave me my first black eye! How can I possibly not live the lie?"
Charles smiled and nodded. "Yup, born the same month and I did give you that black eye and got my first lickin from Fortune for doing it too. I had no regrets though. You had it comin'! Look, Danielle, I don't understand why you would want to love one of your own kind, and I'm not comfortable with it. But if that is you, then I'll get used to it. You're my boss and you and Laurie are my friends."
"I don't know if I can handle being treated like I'm a freak. It is bad enough now being a woman running a large business. Oh hell, I don't know what the hell I want. Yes, I do. I want Laurie as my partner, and I want to be accepted in my community." Danny sighed, slumping in her chair.
"Hard for me to be sympathetic, Danielle. I grew up black under an apartheid system. We black South Africans know all about being judged for no good reason."
Danny looked up and met Charles's eyes. An unspoken message went between them. Danny nodded and lifted her chin. Charles smiled softly back.
"Can I leave you to handle things? I need to go find Laurie."
"I'll get everything ready for your signatures when you get back."
Danny nodded and stood and so did Charles. They shook hands in the Zulu way. "Thanks, Charles, I'll leave right after the press interview. I think you made a woman out of me.
Charles pulled a comical face. "Yeah. But did it have to be a gay woman!" he joked.
Danny gave him a good natured belt and turned to leave.
She turned to see Charles looking hesitant and uncomfortable. "I need to tell you something."
Charles frowned looked at his desk then looked up at Danny. "One of the field hands was just in here. He came to tell me that he had seen my brother Hector sneaking around here last night."
Danny stood perfectly still as the significance of that sank home. "Do you think he set the fire, Charles?" she asked in a deliberately calm, quiet voice.
"I am suspicious. He is obsessed with his visions of Shaka. Thinks he is going to lead an uprising to drive the whites out of South Africa. He's crazy enough to have done this. You know how he hates me and gives Fortune nothing but grief."
Danny nodded. "Thank you for being honest with me, Charles. I know he is your brother and it must be hard. I'll look into it when I get back here with Laurie."
Charles nodded sadly as Danny turned and left. This had been a bitch of a few days.
Rod Gillery had shown up at Sirheni compound the afternoon after Danny had left. Laurie opened the cabin door to his knock. "Rod, how did you know I was here?"
"Am I not the best tracker in South Africa?" he laughed, stepping in and removing his hat. "Actually, you had said you would be here around the fifteenth, so when I got here I just checked the park's reservations to see if you had arrived yet. Aahhh, I was hoping that maybe you had convinced Danielle not to try to stop you from going on a safari with me." Gillery frowned sadly, "I understand her anger. I treated her really badly when we were younger. I thought I loved her. We got engaged. I wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of marriage, and she had the good sense to leave me. I can't say I blame her for resenting me. Aahh, is she around?" Gillery asked, even though he knew the answer to the question.
Laurie listened to Rod's confession with interest. It seemed sincere and fit in with the terse explanation that Danny had given her. Danny was many things but a liar she wasn't. "Come in and sit down. Can I make you a coffee? Danny had to fly back to Stellenbosch. There was a fire at the manor."
"Oh no! That's awful! The manor house is one of the most beautiful examples of early Boer architecture in South Africa. I hope it didn't do much damage."
"I don't know. I haven't heard from Danny yet," Laurie said, being careful to keep her voice light and disinterested. There was no point in letting Gillery know how upset she was with Danny. "What do you take in your coffee?"
"Milk and sugar, please. Well, then, if you are waiting here for Danny to come back maybe we could get a few days of park exploration in."
Laurie frowned and hesitated. "I don't know. Danny has some real concerns..."
"Because I'm a poacher?"
"You admit it?!" Laurie exclaimed, looking up in shock.
Gillery shook his head sadly and sat down in a wicker chair, stretching out his long legs while Laurie took the seat opposite. "I admit that Danielle Agia and I have a difference of opinion. Agia believes that park officials should not interfere with the natural balance in the park. I think that view is idealistic. I don't just sit on the park boards like Danielle. I make my living as a guide so I know first hand what I am talking about.
"A large reserve like this might look like a natural environment but it is not. It is a park and parks need to be cared for. This park and many others are being over-populated by some species that have few enemies, lions, elephants, some of the bigger herd animals...they are over grazing the vegetation and putting a great strain on the water supply in the ponds during the dry season.
Laurie shifted in her chair and listened to Gillery with interest. He went on. "Agia would argue that nature will balance itself. The food and water will run out, animals will die and the balance will readjust again. I disagree. I love these animals and this land. I see the land deteriorating to desert as the exposed land is eroded away without its normal ground cover. When I come across an animal dying of starvation, thirst or disease, yes, I'll put it out of its misery. That makes me a horrible poacher in Agia's eyes. In mine, it just makes me a humane person."
"But isn't the African elephant on the endangered list?" argued Laurie.
"Good God, no! Years ago there was a concern but not now. They are over-populating most of the parks in Africa." Gillery downed the last of his coffee and continued. "People get emotional about animals. They get on the environmental wagon, trying to do good but they don't often verify their information to see if it is still or ever was accurate. I'm not saying that conservation organizations have not done a lot of good, they have, but if they went around telling their contributors that all was well, they would soon be out of business wouldn't they?"
Laurie considered this argument. She wasn't sure she bought into it, but it was certainly a point that was worth some research and consideration. Danny could be pretty hard line in her viewpoints. Maybe Gillery did have a point. "More coffee?"
"No, I'm fine thanks. So as luck would have it, I have just finished a photographic safari, and I don't pick up my next group for a week or so. You appear to be at a loose end too. Why don't you join me and my men for a few days and see first hand what I am talking about?"
Laurie looked into a coarse-cut yet handsome face. Gillery's grey eyes were serene and neutral. She was at a loose end having been virtually dumped in the park by Danny and left. She also had an obligation to her newspaper who had arranged for her to interview this man. Still she needed to be cautious here. Danny had made it quite clear, that in her opinion, Gillery was bad news.
"Okay, when do you want to go?"
Gillery smiled. "How quickly will it take you to get ready?"
Laurie pushed the last of her things into her knapsack and fastened the ties. A niggling worry showed itself in the small lines of a frown. On the one hand, she was glad to be off doing something and fulfilling her agreement with the news agency she was working for. On the other...something just didn't feel right. She was angry at Danny and she knew her childhood friend could be narrow and stubborn in her outlook. Boy! Did she know that! Yet, Danny had felt so strongly about Gillery's attitudes and Danny should know.
Showing caution, she tried again to contact Danny on her cell phone but out here the relays were just too far away to make contact. Earlier that morning, she had asked the ranger to contact the homestead on his ham radio but no one had responded. On impulse, she dropped the useless phone on her bed and wandered into Danny's room.
Everything was in immaculate order. Laurie smiled and ran her fingers over the handle of Danny's hair brush. Then, she went over to her friend's knapsack, opened up the side pouch and pulled out the hand gun she knew Danny kept there. It had been years since Laurie had used a gun. She and Danny used to practice in the old orchard in the back forty when they were young teenagers. Mostly with their twenty-twos but sometimes with the pistols if there was an adult present to supervise. She made sure the safety was on and slipped the clip in place. With a set jaw, she dropped the fire arm into her shoulder bag. She had left a message with the ranger as to who she was with and she was now armed. That was about all the precautions she could take.
On a piece of stationery she wrote a quick note. " The ranger tells me you have left. I hope the house is okay, Danny. I really do. I tried to contact you but no one was near the radio. Gillery is here. I am going on safari with him for a few days as my employer arranged for me to do. Laurie. P.S. I took your hand gun. I hope you don't mind." She placed the note under the hair brush, returned to her room and picked up her knapsack. Locking the cabin door, she joined Gillery who was leaning against his truck smoking a cigarette.
"Ready? Let's go then. We are going to pick up my men at one of the main camps, Punda Maria, and then head out. We'll head north towards the Limpopo River."
"That's close to the Zimbabwe border," Laurie commented, thinking it would be a good place for a poacher to make a base camp should he need to make a quick escape.
"Yes. The river is the dividing line between the two countries."
Gillery drove well, showing both skill and caution on the park roads. They talked of mutual friends from long ago and he stopped twice to let Laurie photograph. Their first sighting was a pack of Veret monkeys along the side of the road. The males of the pack had bright robin-blue scrotums an obvious sign that they were in heat. Later, they were stopped by a herd of cow buffalo. The male stood alone in the centre of the road defying them to come closer. It was a massive animal with an impressive set of horns.
"People have to worry about an encounter with one of the big five; lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo, but I'm telling you, this guy is the biggest killer of the five. If a buffalo charges the only way to stop it is shoot it dead. They are vicious!"
"Really? So this is the animal that is the one associated with the most wild animal kills then?" Laurie asked, as she recorded the information that Gillery was giving her.
"Second. Surprisingly, number one on the list is not one of the big five, it is the hippo. They come out of the water at night and wander about. If your tent is in their path, they'll just go right through. Also the tourists have no sense. They'll paddle right out to them in rivers and then wander why their canoe is capsized and one of their party killed. People forget that these are not pets, that they are unpredictable, wild animals.
They pulled through the gates into a large compound. It was one of the ten or so major centres in the park for tourists facilities. The largest one, Laurie knew, was Skukuza which boasted of its own medical centre, bank and post office.
Three men waited under a shady Baobab tree, surrounded by boxes of supplies. One of the men was tall, lean and mean looking, another young, more boy than man, and filled with a restless energy. The last was a short, wiry man who looked seedy and corrupt. Laurie gave him a curious look. There was something very familiar about the man.
Rod Gillery followed her gaze. "That's Hector Abute. Do you remember him?" Gillery asked, as he turned off the truck and got out to open its back gate.
Laurie got out feeling a mix of surprise and dread. On the one hand, it was nice to meet someone from her childhood. On the other hand, she had never been fond of Hector as she had his big brother Charles. Hector had been a mean, sullen kid, quick to lose his temper and revengeful. He was not a bit like his father, Fortune Abute or his brother Charles, who were both intelligent, kind, and responsible men.
She would need to be outwardly calm and inwardly concerned, she realized. Laurie walked over to Hector and offered him her hand as he stood watching the other two lift the supplies into the truck. "Hector, hello. It's been years! Do you remember me, Laurie Allen?"
Hector smiled, revealing teeth decayed and stained by poor eating habits and smoking. Yet he responded warmly and politely. "Laurie Allen, this is both a surprise and pleasure! It is wonderful to see you after all these years. How is your father?"
"Slowing down a bit but still a going force and the kindest man that ever lived," Laurie said, smiling.
"He stood with us against the evil of apartheid. He would always be welcomed in black South Africa," Hector responded. His words sent a chill through Laurie. It wasn't so much what Hector said, or how he had said it, it was his eyes. They were cold and burned with hate. They were the eyes of a fanatic.
Laurie let go of Hector's hand and took a step back. "I'll tell him you said so. It will please him that you remember him kindly. I had better go see if I can help," Laurie said, and quickly turned away.
Laurie helped arrange the supplies in the truck while Rod Gillery talked quietly to Hector. Then the men leaped in the back and hunched down while Laurie slipped into the front seat again beside Gillery. She nervously felt the side of her shoulder bag. Her uneasiness of earlier in the day had now grown to a real concern. The hard weight of Danny's gun somehow reassured her that everything was alright. They headed off.
Danny Agia drove straight back from Sibasa to Sirheni in the ranger's jeep two days after she had left. She had tried to phone Laurie before she had left but could not reach her. That annoyed her but did not surprise her. There were still isolated areas in South Africa where cellular phone communication was not good.
She was feeling uneasy, however. Laurie was sure to be angry at her for so rudely taking off without so much as a word to her. Somehow, she was going to have to win Laurie's favour back. She wasn't very good at the sensitive sort of conversations where she had to express her feelings. Nor was she too sure yet how she should act on what she was feeling. Okay, she had done it. She had admitted to Charles and earlier to Laurie that she was gay. That was the big part of the battle wasn't it?
She frowned as she drew to a stop at the main gate at Punda Maria. She dutifully showed the ranger at the gate her park pass and then proceeded on, pushing the fifty kilometer speed limit within the park to its limit. No, admitting to yourself, and to a few trusted friends, that you were gay was only the beginning. The hard part was giving up the prejudice taught by the church and society over a lifetime and becoming comfortable within your own skin with who you really are. Could she do that? Could she be comfortable living openly with a woman?
Danny's jaw tightened. She thought of the meeting with the church Elders, saw in her memory the charred ruins of her family home, heard again Fortune's wise words, and felt the pain of Charles' reaction and knew that she had already made that decision. She was proud of her heritage, strong in her belief in God, but unlike so many of her peers, and some of those in her church, she was ready to move on, accept a more tolerant and less narrow world. The past was to be learned from, not deified. She was gay and she wasn't going to be ashamed of that anymore. She loved Laurie and she was definitely not ashamed of that.
She braked and pulled to a stop, a smile on her face, as she watched a graceful herd of Steenbok cross the road in front of her. Moving off again, she leaned back more confidently. The next few weeks were going to be tough as she convinced Laurie of her love and her decision to stop living a lie. But she knew in her heart and soul that she had crossed, in the last few days, a high wall of bigotry and could now move on happily with the rest of her life.
Danny pulled up to the high chain link gate that surrounded the private camp of Sirheni. Putting the jeep in park, she got out and opened the gates, drove the jeep through and parked it outside of the ranger's station before going back to close the gate securely. Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders she walked down to their cabin.
The door was locked. "Laurie," Danny called, using her own key to unlock the door and step inside. Maybe she was down at the observing platform that looked out over the Mphngolo River, Danny thought. She would get freshened up and then go looking for Laurie. A curious frown, formed on her face as she failed to see the usual mess that cluttered Laurie's bedroom. Danny was to the end of the hall in three strides. Laurie's things were gone.
Panic seized Danny's heart. Laurie must be really angry at her to have left. She went back down the hall. No message in the lounge or the kitchen. Feeling truly upset now she stalked to her room. There she found the note under her hair brush. She read the hurt words and felt knives of pain and worry stab into her heart. Still holding the note she strode over to her knapsack and opened up the side pocket. Laurie had taken the gun and that meant she was concerned about her situation. Shit!
"No," the ranger said firmly, "I cannot let you take the jeep again. My wife would kill me! We need it to get around. We can't take the big truck every time we wish to do a bit of shopping or take the kids to the doctor."
"I've got to have it. You've heard of Rod Gillery. You know as well as I do that he is a dangerous man," Danny argued.
"You can have the big truck," the ranger offered, finding himself caught between an angry board member and an angry wife.
"Let me talk to your wife, Henry," Danny requested, trying to keep her emotions in check. "Please!"
"Daisy! Daisy, you come out please, Danielle Agia wishes to talk to you." Danny heard the ranger call from inside the station where he had disappeared after considering Danny's request.
A small, dark woman came to the door looking stubborn and uncooperative. Danny gave it her all. "Daisy, I have no right to take your jeep. It was very good of you to lend it to me the first time. But I am here begging. You know Rod Gillery. You know that he and his men probably
killed Luke Zakahka, the ranger over at Sabi Sabi last year. Now he has my partner. Please, I need to go after them before there is any more killing."
Daisy looked at Danny for a long time. "You take the jeep," she decreed and disappeared back into the house without another word. Danny looked at Henry and saw the surprise and confusion on his face. Reaching into his pocket, he handed the keys over to Danny.
"Thank you," Danny said in relief, and threw her knapsack into the vehicle. "I need a rifle," she said, looking at the ranger again. Henry shrugged and disappeared into the station returning with a rifle and a box of shells. Danny leapt into the jeep and the ranger walked over to open the high gate for her. He watched as she disappeared in a cloud of dust with his jeep and then closed the gate. As long as he lived he would never understand women.
Out again on the main road, Danny stopped to consider. Where would they have gone? As much as she hated to waste the time, the logical choice was to head back to the main gate at Punda Maria about an hour's ride away. Gillery was likely to have bought supplies there and he might have indicated to someone where he was headed. The route was north and then west. It was most likely that Gillery had headed north. There were fewer roads up there and so more game and it was easy for poachers to slip over into Zimbabwe or Mozambique if they were being pursued. Danny chaffed at the time that would be wasted going west to the main gate but more could be saved if she found someone there who knew where Gillery was headed.
It was two in the afternoon by the time Danny reached Punda Maria again, and it was past four by the time her inquiries turned up someone who knew Gillery's plans. A clerk in the beer store had come from the Cape Town area and had recognized Hector Abute. Hector had bought a beer from him and bragged to him that he was a better shot than Rod Gillery. He had told the clerk that he meant to kill a lion to use in a medicine. But the clerk had not took him very seriously. "It was the beer talking, Danielle Agia.. Hector Abute is no hunter."
"Did he indicate which way they were going?" Danny asked casually, so as not to put the man on his guard.
"To the north near Luvuvhu, he told me," the clerk said, more interested in clearing the till and locking up than in the conversation with Agia now.
Danny headed out. So Hector was working for Gillery. Hector had been in Stellenbosch and might have set the fire. Danny had flown back and Gillery had used the opportunity to get to Laurie. Shit! Gillery was up to something that was for sure. But what? Danny stopped dead and blinked several times. Gillery knew that Danny would not leave Laurie alone with him. He knew Danny would come after them. She would follow them to an isolated part of the park where Gillery could set up an "unfortunate accident". Danny was walking into a trap. Gillery wanted her out of the way because he was feeling the heat of the crack down on poachers!
Danny tightened her jaw and headed towards the jeep. With luck, she should be able to get to the South African Police Station on the Mozambique boarder by night fall. She'd spend the night there and then go after Gillery at day break.
Laurie watched the dry savannah dotted with scrub succulent bushes pass by the window. It was unusually quiet and tense in the truck. Up ahead, on the road, she saw the tell tale bed of dung that rhinos used to mark the edges of their territory. Often the edge of a road was used for such a purpose, the rhino returning to the same spot day after day until a large mound of dung covered one lane. Gillery pulled out to go around it.
"Do you think there will be any chance of photographing some rhinos?" Laurie asked. "I understand that Kruger has both white and black rhinos."
"There has been a change in plans," Gillery responded coldly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is no longer a photographic safari. You are with us as bait to draw Agia out where we want her."
Gillery turned to give her a nasty smile before looking back at the road. "It is a shame, but you and your friend are about to meet with an unfortunate accident. It happens sometimes even to the best of trackers."
The men in the back laughed. Laurie felt her insides crunch in fear. She had heeded Danny's warnings. She was prepared to find that Gillery was a poacher, she even thought that he might come on to her, but it had never occurred to her that he would use her to kill Danny.
"Look, Rod, this is a really bad idea. You will never get away with it. I work for a paper, do you not think that they are not going to send people out to investigate? Danny, as you well know, is a very powerful and influential woman in this country. There will be a huge inquiry."
"I certainly hope so! I plan on making a good deal of money on bringing groups out to investigate and being the last person to have seen the famous Danielle Agia alive!"
"People will know you killed us!"
"Some will suspect, but they will never be able to prove it. Not after the lions, scavengers and African sun have finished with you."
"A forensic lab will be able to tell! This is the twenty-first century, Gillery. It is almost impossible to cover up a murder. Look, reconsider, you could let me off at the next centre, and I'll phone Danny to pick me up. You could be across the border in no time and safe enough."
For an answer, Gillery just laughed.
Laurie turned to look at Hector. "Hector, you don't want to be part of this. Danny has always treated you fairly." Hector spat out of the open window, closed his eyes and ignored her. Laurie fell silent. She was going over in her mind ways that she could get out of this situation and warn Danny.
They traveled for nearly three hours on the main road before turning off onto a dirt trail and bouncing along at a much slower pace. Laurie held on to the door frame and dashboard to stop from being bounced against Gillery. She was dying of thirst and needed to go to the bathroom. Soon they would have to stop and then perhaps there would be a chance for escape. She would need the truck. This was not country to be out alone in with only the protection of a hand gun.
Finally, Gillery turned and drove the landrover off the path and bounced along a ridge above a wide gully. They rounded a steep outcrop of rock and there before them in the distance was the Limpopo River. The landrover came to a halt in a cloud of dust.
The men climbed out and started unloading the supplies from the back. Laurie undid her seat belt and went to open her door. Gillery's hand clamped around her arm painfully. "I am not going to tie you up. You were born in Africa, you know that you would be lion bait if you try to escape on foot. If you are foolish enough to try anyway, we will shoot you dead before you get fifty feet."
Laurie did not give him the satisfaction of showing her fear. "I'm going behind those rocks to go the bathroom. You keep your pack of jackals away from me," she ordered, pulling her arm free.
Gillery smiled cruelly but said nothing. Laurie got out and walked past the two men unpacking the supplies and Hector, who now stood with an MK 15 cradled in his arms. Laurie ignored him.
The afternoon sun burned down, and Laurie was hard pressed to find shelter in the shade of the outcrop. It was preferable though to where she had been, sitting in the cave with the men listening to their foul talk as they played cards.
She had commandeered a canteen of water and some ostrich jerky. She had drunk and eaten as little as possible. She had a plan. It was risky, even foolhardy, but she was damned if she was going to let Danny walk into a trap.
The sun slowly edged towards the horizon. Off in the distance, Laurie watched three giraffe saunter on their stilt-like legs down to the Limpopo River. One stood watching while the others spread their front legs wide and leaned their long necks forward to drink. Drinking was when the giraffe was at its most vulnerable position for attack. The animals were nervous and their ears twitched back and forth as they drank. When they'd had their fill, they stood by watching while the third animal took its turn at the water's edge.
Hector stumbled out of the cave and squatted down beside her. "Once we have Agia, he plans to let us rape and kill you. It doesn't have to be that way. I like blond women. I could take you as mine. Perhaps I will anyway."
Laurie kept her eyes on the horizon and pretended she didn't hear him. This was not the time to tell the bastard to go fuck himself. She felt the sweat trickle down her back, and Hector's body odor made her want to pull away. She forced herself to not react so that outwardly she was calm and undisturbed by Hector's presence.
"Bitch," he hissed and got up to relieve himself in some nearby bushes. It happened so quickly. Hector was standing there facing the bushes and the next second a huge buffalo was charging at him, its head down and its massive shoulders bulging with power. Hector screamed. The animal suddenly lurched and dropped at Hector's feet as three shots cracked across the valley. A flock of Great White Egret squawked and took to the sky in the valley below. Hector sunk to the ground beside the deadly rack of horns that had so nearly gored him. He had soiled his pants in fear.
Gillery, who had rushed out of the cave with the others, reached out and took the gun from Laurie's hand. "Nice shooting," he noted dryly. "I think I had better keep this and your bag."
Laurie handed it over and went to sit by herself higher up on the rocks. She had not thought. She had reacted and saved Hector's life. Now she had lost the gun and the water and food that she had stored away. The cost of Hector's life was the realization that tomorrow morning, Danny would walk into an ambush and be killed. Tears rolled silently down Laurie's face.
The sun set, pouring crimson across a majestic landscape. The air cooled. The predators of the night stirred. Laurie slipped into the cave and settled down in a corner far away from the men. Hector too sat away from the others and nearer to Laurie. Neither of his men had said anything to him, but he could see the contempt in their eyes. They had butchered the buffalo and eaten the liver and hung the shanks to be cut into strips and smoked or dried in the sun tomorrow. Then they had sat with Gillery, ignoring him.
Hector had gone and changed, throwing his soiled pants away in shame and slipping into a pair of shorts. His men had believed he was the next Shaka. Instead, he had screamed like a baby and shit his pants. He was only alive because Laurie Allen had chose to save him even though he had treated her so rudely. It had been Laurie Allen too, who sensing his reluctance to join the men near the fire, had brought him over some meat and a blanket.
He had failed. Failed in everything he had ever tried to do. He had trusted that the spirit of Shaka would give him greatness if only he believed. Instead, he had got AIDS like so many these days, and his moment for glory had been lost by his own fear as he had stood there holding his own dick.
It was a long dark night.
Danny had been on the road before light. Within a few hours of dawn, she had picked up Gillery's trail. He was leading her right to him. As soon as the outcrop came into view, Danny knew that would be the place. He had chosen wisely. The brush was thick on each side of the road. It would be far too dangerous to get out and track. Besides, from up there, Gillery had watched her from when she had turned off the road.
No, she would have to walk into his trap and hope she could get Laurie and herself out of it alive.
She stopped and picked up the ham radio mike. "Agia to police station six, over"
"We read you, Agia, over," came a tinny voice in response.
"I've found them. They are on an outcrop of rock some miles northwest of the Luvuvhu service road. I need back up. Over."
"We have a helicopter police patrol on its way. Stay where you are. Over."
"No can do," Danny replied and turned off the radio before she had to hear any arguments.
She dropped the jeep into low gear and headed up the ridge, finally coming to a stop beside Gillery's Landrover. Rod Gillery stood a few meters away holding a rifle on Laurie Allen. No one else was in sight. This was bad. If she got out, chances were that three rifles would bring her down. If she didn't get out, Gillery would kill Laurie.
"Danny! It's a trap!" Laurie yelled, suddenly rushing forward. Gillery fired but his aim was jarred off target as Hector rushed out of the bush and tackled Gillery. Laurie stumbled in her forward motion as she felt the pain of the bullet rip under her arm and enter her body. Her knees gave way and her hand came away from her chest covered in blood. The world spun and blackness closed in around her.
Danny ducked low, and stepped on the accelerator, slamming into the brush and jumping out of the jeep, her rifle in hand. She took out the man in front of her before his finger had even squeezed the trigger. Then she rolled and turned to take aim at another that ran down the ridge. Danny lowered her gun. He was a boy and running away. Another shot rang out behind her and she took cover.
"That's Hector dead, Agia! It's just you and me now!" a voice echoed about her. She kept low, staying in the shadows, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. "Your little friend's dead too, Agia. You couldn't save her," Gillery taunted, confident in the fact that his voice echoed off the rocks and made his location almost impossible to detect.
Danny forced herself to stay focused. First, she had to get Gillery. She didn't let herself think past that point. She couldn't or she would go to pieces. Slowly, she moved forward, her eyes darting about, letting her civilized mind go and thinking like a predator. He would be up in the vertical rocks above the cave entrance. She dropped down lower into the brush, circling around and then edging out under a lip to make her way around the ridge to the back of the outcrop.
For a split second, as she slipped from the cover of the brush over the side to cling to the rock face of the ridge, she'd had a glimpse of Hector's and Laurie's bodies lying in pools of blood on the flat rocks by the cave. Her stomach lurched and she fought back tears of anger and fear.
She knew she was very vulnerable to attack here. She needed both hands to work her way along the narrow ledge and that meant slinging her rifle over her shoulder. If Gillery saw any rocks drop, he would know where she was, and she would be an easy target for him.
Fingers and legs aching, she slowly edged along under the lip of the rock overhang. Now and again, Gillery called out to her, his voice carrying the tightness of fear. He was worried. He had no idea where she was. She edged into a crevasse filled with loose stone. Keeping her feet braced on either side, she moved slowly forward. She could see Gillery's back now as he looked between two rocks. All he had to do was to turn around and fire and she would be dead.
Sweat dripped from her face and darkened the rock as she slid farther along until there was a stable place to brace her feet. Slowly, she readied her rifle, the cross hairs directly between Gillery's shoulder blades. "Drop the gun!" she called out.
Gillery spun and lifted his rifle. Danny fired and the poacher's movement froze for a split second, and then the figure went limp and dropped heavily to the ground. Danny moved forward, keeping her gun on him. He didn't move. She kicked his rifle clear and bent and rolled him over. He was dead. The bullet had shattered his sternum and ripped through his heart.
Danny ran to the top of the outcrop and jumped off, landing only a few meters from where Laurie lay. She was beside the small figure in an instant. "Laurie? Laurie? Come on, damn it," Danny begged. Carefully, she rolled the still form from her side onto her back. Laurie moaned and Danny sobbed in relief. The bullet seemed to have grazed her right side just under her arm and exited through her breast.
Danny scrambled over to the jeep and grabbed a bottle of water and the first aid kit. Laurie's eyes were open when she returned. "Danny, are you all right?" she whispered weakly.
"I'm fine, Love. Shhh, you've been shot. Don't move. I'm going to try to stop the blood flow."
"I love you, Danny."
Danny leaned forward and kissed Laurie softly. "I love you too, sweetheart." Danny worked with trembling hands to staunch the blood and to keep Laurie from going into shock.
When Danny was sure that she had done all she could and Laurie had once again drifted into unconsciousness, Danny went to check on Hector. He lay on his back, his breathing coming in short gurgles. "Don't touch me, Danielle Agia. I have AIDS."
"Hector, I have to do something. I can't just stand by and watch you die."
Hector closed his eyes for a second to gather what strength he had left. "I will die anyway."
"You saved Laurie's life and mine," Danny stated, squatting down to hear better what the dying man was saying.
"You tell my father I died well, Danielle Agia, not for me but to give him peace."
"I will tell him the truth, Hector, that you died a hero saving us."
Hector smiled. The happiness did not reach his eyes that stared now up into the blue sky. His body jerked and blood bubbled from his mouth, then it was over.
Danny stood, becoming aware of the beat of a helicopter's blades in the distance. What was important now was getting Laurie to the hospital.
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