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Authors: Tony Park

Red Earth

BOOK: Red Earth
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About
Red Earth

On the outskirts of Durban, Suzanne Fessey fights back during a vicious carjacking. She kills one thief but the other, wounded, escapes with her baby strapped into the back seat.

Called in to pursue the missing vehicle are helicopter pilot Nia Carras from the air, and nearby wildlife researcher Mike Dunn, from the ground.

But South Africa's police have even bigger problems: a suicide bomber has killed the visiting American ambassador, and chaos has descended on Kwa-Zulu Natal.

As Mike and Nia track the missing baby through wild game reserves from Zululand to Zimbabwe, they come to realise that the war on terror has well and truly invaded their part of the world.

‘Gripping action thrillers … never disappoints as a storyteller' – Daily Telegraph

For Nicola

Part 1

They called him Inqe and he flew all over southern Africa, searching, always searching.

The sky was clear, the day warm, perfect weather for flying though summer's storms would soon be on their way. The golden grasslands and crops passed below him. Inqe was heading for the rolling hills and coastal wetlands of KwaZulu-Natal, nearly seven hundred kilometres south of his base in the Kruger National Park. He wasn't alone; his wingmen were either side of him.

They crossed the monumentally scaly back of the dragon, the Drakensberg Mountains, and the greener, lusher land opened out beneath them. Specks in the distant sky caught Inqe's eye and he changed direction to head towards them. As he flew closer he could see the fliers were in a landing pattern, each holding in perfect formation until it was his or her turn to land. Inqe joined the circuit, as did his wingmen.

As he orbited, waiting for his chance to touch down, Inqe saw there was yet more traffic in the air. Over King Shaka International Airport, a Boeing was on its final approach, and a small helicopter was coming towards them, low, fast, hellbent on a mission of some sort.

He returned his attention to the others immediately around him, and their target on the ground below. Those that had landed were already hard at work. He hoped he wouldn't be too late. On the thermals rising from the sun-warmed African grasslands he smelled the sweet scent that had brought the other fliers, and which had lured Inqe and his wingmen to Zululand.

Death.

Chapter 1

‘ZAP-Wing, this is Tracker,' Nia Carras said into the boom microphone attached to her headphones. ‘I've located your target.'

She adjusted her course slightly and pushed her Robinson R44 helicopter into a wide turn to stay clear of what looked like a swirling tornado of black dots against the blue sky. ‘It's a kill all right, over.'

‘Roger that, Tracker,' said Simon, the operations officer on duty at ZAP-Wing, the Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing, a force of air assets patrolling twenty-four game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal Province. ‘Can you confirm it's a rhino, over?'

Nia keyed the microphone switch on the stick. ‘Moving in closer, ZAP-Wing, but I'm taking it easy. There are vultures everywhere here.'

Nia tightened her orbit and, checking to either side and above her, brought the R44 lower. The carcass of the dead animal below was rippling with the bobbing heads and beating wings of scores of vultures, all fighting for the tastiest morsels of their lifeless prey. The noise of the approaching helicopter startled some of the birds, which began the ungainly process of taking off. Each vulture's wingspan was up to two metres wide.

‘Getting visual now,' Nia said into her radio. She was used to continually scanning the sky around her, and her instruments; her eyes rested momentarily on the satellite navigation system in the cockpit. ‘Hey, ZAP-Wing, you do know this kill is outside the park, right? Over.'

Nia peered through the rising curtain of birds, trying to catch sight of something that would identify the animal they were feasting on. The most prevalent and serious big game targets of poachers in the province were rhinos.

‘Negative, Tracker,' said Simon. ‘We received a report on the hotline from someone who thought the kill was inside the park, over.'

‘Well, they got that wrong. It's just outside, in the communal lands.' A white-backed vulture, startled by the noise of Nia's engine, alighted from the head of the dead beast. ‘Wait, ZAP-Wing. I see a horn and it's not of the rhino variety. It's a dead nguni, over.'

‘A cow?'

‘Affirmative. Something odd there, too. I'm going down for a closer look.'

‘Your call, Tracker, we appreciate you going out of your way in any case
.
'

Nia could hear the diminishing interest in Simon's voice. If it wasn't a dead rhino in the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park then there would be no need to call in the police or national parks anti-poaching teams. The Hluhluwe Game Reserve and the adjoining iMfolozi Game Reserve, now designated as one park, were home to large numbers of black and white rhino. The cow had probably been hit by a car or a truck; it was close to the main tar road that ran between the two reserves, towards Mtubatuba.

She should really have been heading back to her base at Virginia Airport on the coast just north of Durban, but she had some fuel left and it was a beautiful day for flying. It had been a good morning, even if it hadn't started out too well. She'd received a call-out early, just before six, from the control room of Motor Track, the vehicle tracking company that Coastal Choppers, her employer, was contracted to. A Volkswagen Jetta had been stolen from outside a pub in Ballito and was last seen heading for the N2. Her tracker, John Buttenshaw, who normally flew with her, had received the call at the same time. At that time of day Nia had made it to Virginia from her home in Umhlanga Rocks in nine minutes, but when she'd arrived at the gate to Coastal Choppers it was still locked and the lights were off in the office. Nia's cell phone had rung just then.

‘John?' she'd asked as she saw his number flash on the screen. ‘What's wrong?' John, who was a trainee helicopter pilot trying to get his hours up in his spare time, lived much closer to the airport, just a kilometre away, and by the time Nia arrived he'd normally be there getting everything ready. Together, they would push the Robinson R44 outside and she would start it up.

‘Sheesh
,
you won't believe it,' John said, sounding stressed. ‘I pulled out of my house and this drunk guy came screaming round the corner and T-boned me.'

Nia had checked that John was OK – he was – but the drunk had cracked his head on his windscreen and John was waiting with him for an ambulance. It wasn't ideal for her to fly a tracking mission by herself, but John would be tied up for an hour or more, so she'd wheeled the R44 out by herself, grabbed John's tracking pack from the office, and taken off alone to find the stolen Jetta.

It had been a pretty uneventful mission. She'd picked up the signal from the radio tracking device hidden in the car north of the town of Hluhluwe and found the vehicle abandoned on the side of the N2. The Motor Track ground crew, her boyfriend, Angus Greiner, and his partner Sipho Baloyi, had arrived about twenty minutes after her while Nia orbited the vehicle. She'd done a low-level fly past and Banger – Angus's nickname – had blown her a kiss. Over the radio they'd confirmed the car was fine – luckily for the owner he or she had neglected to fill the fuel tank lately and the Jetta had run out of fuel.

‘Probably some
okes
just looking for a quick ride home from the pub,' Banger had theorised over the radio. ‘We'll put some fuel in it and I'll take it to the owner. Sipho will follow me. Catch you later, babe.'

Some of the vehicles they tracked were stolen for parts; others were destined to be resprayed and smuggled across the nearby border into Mozambique; some were taken to be used in a robbery; and others, like the Jetta, were taken because they provided a quick, easy ride home. This had been a good morning, Nia told herself. The vehicle had been recovered, no one had been held up or shot and no other crime committed, and Banger and Sipho had not had to face down a gunman or two. She worried about him constantly. Like the other ground crews, Banger and Sipho were always spoiling for action and were sometimes brave to the point of being stupid. But Nia acknowledged that Banger's recklessness was part of the attraction she felt for him.

Nia flew a slow orbit around the dead cow, keeping a careful watch out for flying vultures – a hit from one of those massive birds could bring her down. Through the Perspex windshield Nia could see several birds, maybe a dozen or more, still on the ground around the carcass, most of them with their wings outstretched as though they were sunning themselves. The majority of the vultures, however, had taken flight. She brought the helicopter in as close as she dared.

‘ZAP-Wing, there's a problem here,' she said as she settled into a hover.

‘What is it, Tracker?' Simon said.

The vultures on the ground were not moving at all. All the birds that were able had taken off. The bones of the cow's rib cage had been stripped clean and were shining bright white against the dun-coloured grass and the red gore of what was left of the animal.

Nia keyed the radio switch. ‘Better call your vulture guy, ZAP-Wing. There's a span of dead birds on the ground here.'

*

Suzanne Fessey closed the door of the house in Hillcrest she and her husband had been renting for the last six months. She picked up her baby and took him to the Toyota Fortuner.

She felt mixed emotions about leaving the house, about taking the baby when she would never see her husband again. They hadn't been ready for a child, hadn't expected or wanted one, but they had decided to go through with the pregnancy.

Suzanne had cleaned the house from end to end, vacuuming, scrubbing and wiping down everything. There was no trace of her left there. She unlocked the Fortuner and put the child in his car seat, squeezed in among her possessions. He wriggled and gurgled as she fitted his restraints – he was active and adventurous and she knew he would be walking soon. She wasn't taking a lot with her, but it was surprising how much stuff one accumulated.

With her son securely belted in, Suzanne reversed out of the driveway and drove out of the small walled estate's gates. She turned right and headed down the street to the on ramp to the N3, heading towards Durban. It was a warm day and she turned up the air conditioner and switched on East Coast Radio.

She caught the tail end of the news. The Sharks had beaten the Stormers on the weekend. The recap of the news was about more load shedding and a corrupt local politician. Nothing out of the ordinary there, she thought to herself.

Suzanne turned off the radio before the music began again. She checked the clock on the dashboard. If she didn't take too many breaks she would be in Mozambique in a bungalow on the Indian Ocean by four that afternoon, after which the rest of her life would begin.

She skirted Durban and took the N2
north. Suzanne had deliberately left late to miss the peak-hour traffic and the motorway was flowing well. Soon she was clear of the city. In just under an hour she would check the news again. She turned and looked back at her son. ‘Not long now.'

Emerald-green sugar cane fields lined the road and off to her right she could see how the sky turned a deeper shade of blue where it met the sea, which was out of sight, but not out of reach. As she crossed a bridge a long-crested eagle took flight from its perch on the railing. Suzanne watched it fly off into the clear sky. She remembered another time, another life, when she was a child and her parents used to take her into Hluhluwe–iMfolozi to see the animals. Her father was interested in birds, but Suzanne wasn't; she hated anything her father liked. She had left home at seventeen, lived on the streets, and the nightmare that was her life, not eased by the
dagga
or the
tic
, or even the heroin, had been almost as bad as her time at home. But she had turned her life around, with the help of a good but weak man. And he had given her a child. Suzanne had realised two things late in life – she was a fighter, and she was a survivor. She would find a better place.

Coughing, spluttering and an awful smell from the back made her turn. ‘Oh, no!'

Her son had vomited, all down his front. The stench made her gag. Suzanne banged the steering wheel in anger. ‘Shit, shit, shit!'

Up ahead, beside a bus stop layby, was a small caravan. Suzanne saw two cars there, one a beaten-up
bakkie
attached to the caravan, the other a red Volkswagen Golf. As she drew closer she saw that the trailer was a mobile
boerewors
roll stand. It was as good a place as any to stop and clean the baby with some wet wipes; as tough as she was she couldn't stand the smell. She slowed down and pulled over.

*

Shadrack Mduli looked in the wing mirror of the Golf and saw the white Fortuner indicating left to pull over at the caravan. He nudged his partner, Joseph Ndlovu, in the ribs.

‘Can you believe this shit? It's like home delivery,' Shadrack said.

Joseph stretched and yawned. ‘What, brother? I was sleeping. What are you talking about?'

Shadrack pointed over his shoulder with a thumb. ‘Check. Late model Fortuner, white, single woman driving. Our luck has changed. She's coming right to us.'

This, Shadrack realised, would be even easier than he thought. The woman was pulling over a good fifty metres away from the caravan selling
wors
rolls. He checked the mobile eatery and could not even see the cook inside. If he couldn't see the chef, then the chef couldn't see them.

The woman got out of her car, clearly looking flustered, and walked around to the rear door. ‘Let's go,' Shadrack said. Joseph unfolded his lanky frame from the small Golf.

Shadrack pulled the nine-millimetre pistol from the waistband of his low-slung jeans. With Joseph following he raised the gun and strode up to the woman. ‘Give me your keys, now!'

She turned to him. Shadrack closed the gap between them and pointed the gun at her face, just centimetres away. ‘Now! I said give me your keys or I'll blow your head off.'

The woman glared back at him. Shadrack was used to his victims screaming or crying or madly scrambling for their keys to give to him, not just staring back at him. He had never killed a person during a robbery, but he fully believed he could do so. This woman mocked him with her stare. Well, she would be his first. He tightened his finger on the trigger, hoping the muscle action would still the slight tremor he felt in his hands. ‘Last chance. Don't just stand there.'

‘Shad … brother,' Joseph called behind him.

Shadrack risked a quick sideways glance and saw that Joseph was at the driver's side door.

‘The keys are in the ignition,' Joseph said.

Shadrack saw the movement in his peripheral vision but he was too slow to move. He felt the blow on his wrist at the same moment and pulled the trigger, instinctively. His shot went wide. The stupid woman had hit him – no one had ever defied him like that. Her other hand was moving as well. He swung his gun hand back towards her, but before he could fire he was on his back, on the ground, his ears ringing from the blast of another gunshot. How could that be? he wondered. He was sure he hadn't fired again.

Shadrack tried to raise his hand to aim his pistol, but he felt too weak to do so. He looked down and saw red blossoming across his chest, soaking the fabric of his white T-shirt. He saw the woman's feet step over him, heard the crunch of her shoes on the gravel of the layby. The Fortuner's engine roared to life and the wheels spun on the loose surface.

‘My baby!' The woman turned and punctuated her cry with two shots at the escaping vehicle.

The pain hit Shadrack as the numbness from the shock of the bullet's impact wore off. He screamed with the effort of rolling over. His eyes were clouding and the effort it took to stretch out his right arm and hand nearly made him black out. It was worth the pain, though. The woman was a blurry target beyond the tip of the barrel. Curse her. He pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times, and had the satisfaction of seeing her stumble before his world ended.

BOOK: Red Earth
12.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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