Scent of FearTony Park
Afghanistan veteran Sean Bourke's world explodes when an IED detonates in South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve.
On a routine anti-poaching patrol, Sean and his tracker dog Benny watch in horror as over-eager rookie Tumi Mabasa is almost killed, and her dog gravely injured, in the explosion.
Along with Tumi and best mate Craig Hoddy, Sean is determined to hunt down the elusive bomb maker who has introduced this destructive weapon to the war on poaching.
But Sean is his own worst enemy. Haunted by nightmares of the war and racked with guilt from driving away his ex-wife, Christine, he soon discovers she and Craig in the midst of an intense affair.
And there's another enemy at play . . .
As bombs target Sean's unit, can he get himself back on track and win the fight for Africa's wildlife - and Christine - before it's too late?
About Scent of Fear Afghanistan veteran Sean Bourke’s world explodes when an IED detonates in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve. On a routine anti-poaching patrol, Sean and his tracker dog Benny watch in horror as over-eager rookie Tumi Mabasa is almost killed and her dog gravely injured in the explosion. Along with Tumi and best mate Craig Hoddy, Sean is determined to hunt down the elusive bombmaker who has introduced this destructive weapon to the war on poaching. But Sean is his own worst enemy. Haunted by nightmares of the war and racked with guilt from driving away his ex-wife, Christine, he soon discovers she and Craig are in the midst of an intense affair. And there’s another enemy at play . . . As bombs target Sean’s team, can he get himself back on track and win the fight for Africa’s wildlife – and Christine – before it’s too late? ‘Gripping action thrillers . . . never disappoints as a storyteller’ daily telegraph Contents Cover About Scent of Fear Title page Dedication Map Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Epilogue Acknowledgements About Tony Park Also by Tony Park Copyright page For Nicola Prologue Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa I hate cats. Don’t worry if you’re a cat person. I’ll win you over. I tend to grow on people. Sure, I have my faults. I’m messy, my farts stink, and my best friend says that all I think about is eating and chasing tail. And work. I love my job. I’m good at it, which is why I’m alive and still working today. My idea of hell is to be cooped up indoors somewhere, or unemployed. It’s cool if you like to have your nails done, your hair fixed, to get a new outfit or a new toy every week. If that’s your thing, that’s OK. But it’s not mine. While I like my job, I like my sleep even better, so I was annoyed at being woken by the cat. I was having a dream, and it was a good one. I was chasing pussy. I like that, as well. Did I tell you I went to war? Want to know the truth? I liked it. It’s not for everyone; not for those who need gourmet food, a comfy bed, endless amusement. Not for the ones who need to be carried through life, or adorned with jewels or taken to the doctor at the drop of a hat for a check-up. But it’s not all fun. War is crazy. Mad and bad. I lost a couple of friends and that was sad. I howled. I got hit, took some homemade shrapnel from an IED, an improvised explosive device, they call it. Me, I call it a big fucking bang, worse than any firework you could ever imagine. That’s another downside of war, too many bangs. But on the whole, the chow was good, the work was fun, and I made some great friends. Buddies for life, in fact, and that’s how I ended up back home, in South Africa. I knew Africa, as soon as I came back. One time, when I was on a helicopter – I hate them, too, by the way – I thought about grass. Not marijuana, though there was plenty of that in Afghanistan (I can sniff that shit out half a mile away), but the kind you roll in and like to feel under your feet. I was so damned used to walking on rocks and dirt and sand, and through mud and crap and ice-cold rivers, that I almost forgot what it was like to walk on grass. It was after the IED had gone off. I had a metal screw, part of the bomb, stuck inside me, near an artery, and I was bleeding bad. A US Army Special Forces medic had put a field dressing on me and inserted an IV to keep my fluids up. He saved my life and he was crying as he worked on me. Sean was next to him, holding me still, and he was crying too. I have that effect on people – told you that you’d grow to like me. As I passed out, from loss of blood, the last thing I thought of was grass. I remembered the summers, when I was small, when the grass was green and soft, like running on velvet. By the time I finished training it was the end of the dry season and the grass was the colour of gold, brittle, dry, spiky to the touch. Still, it was better than dirt and rock. I woke up in the hospital and I freaked out. I hate going to the doctor, always have. Give me gunfire and explosions any day, but there’s nothing that makes me whine and cower and hide under my arse more than the prospect of a trip to the sawbones. It’s the smells, you know? All that disinfectant and piss and drugs, and that look in the eye of the person taking you there. You just know it’s going to be bad. I survived Afghanistan, and so did Sean. Got me a scar where the hair won’t grow to this day, and a promotion, to US Army corporal, honorary of course, and a medal. I saved a guy, my buddy Sean, and a whole bunch of American GIs. It didn’t really mean anything to me; I was just doing my job. I can sense it, you know, when there’s danger. It’s what the guys liked about me. They came to visit me in the hospital, brought me food, and even a beer, though the alcohol-free kind. I lapped it up and I wolfed down that hamburger like it was the best meal of my life, the best day ever. It was both of those things. It took a while, but I got back to work, and so did Sean. But where was I? Oh, yeah, cats. Right. Hate ’em. I can hear the one that woke me up, right now. It’s just outside my place. I live back in South Africa now. Different job, same rank. I’m still a corporal, although now instead of looking for Taliban and bombs, I’m hunting poachers. There are no IEDs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, or scary; it’s both. The cat’s calling, keeping me awake and pissing me off, because I’m on duty and I need my sleep. I can be called out at any time, day or night. Poachers don’t keep regular hours, but that’s fine by me. It’s like the war, you know? You train a lot, and that can be fun, but the real excitement comes when you get a callout. There’s nothing like it, that thrill of the hunt, running through the bush or finding a bad guy. And like in the war, you sleep when you can. I heard a stretcher creak, and rolled over. Sean was awake. ‘Howzit, boet?’ Like me, Sean was born in South Africa, in Durban, but we both ended up working for the US Army in Afghanistan, as contractors. He calls me his boet as we’re brothers, inseparable. I didn’t say anything, but he could tell from the look on my face I wasn’t happy. ‘I know. Bloody cat.’ I sighed. He picked up his phone off the upturned box that served as a side table in the permanent safari tent we shared and checked the time. ‘Middle of the night still.’ He stretched and yawned, and I did the same. It was cold, and the full moon’s watery light seeped into our room. We both heard the sound of gunfire. ‘Shit.’ Sean switched on the tent light. I jumped off the stretcher. Full moon nights used to be really busy, but it had been some time since we’d been called out. ‘That’s near.’ He cocked an ear. There were more shots, and they were very close. Sean pulled on his boots and was buttoning his bush shirt when his phone rang. ‘Howzit . . . OK,’ he said into the phone, then ended the call and turned to me. ‘We’re on, Benny.’ I was ready to go. Couldn’t wait, in fact. I hadn’t slept much – the cat had seen to that – but I was awake and alert and ready to do my job. It was a cold, clear night, but the chill in the air was nothing compared to the sleet and snow in the mountains of Afghanistan. Sean opened his mouth to speak, but as I looked up at him – he’s much taller than me – I already knew what he was going to say. At that very second, when I heard the noise, that dull thwap-thwap-thwap of rotor blades bouncing around the night sky and heading our way, I wanted to turn tail and hide under my blanket. In fact, I got up and started to move. ‘Benny. It’s OK, boy. How many times do I have to tell you, it’s only a chopper?’ Only a chopper? ‘Quit your whining, Benny,’ he said. ‘You’re a dog, not a pussy.’ I was reluctant, but I followed Sean outside into the cool night air. Swivelling my head in the direction of the noise, I saw the reflection of the landing light rippling its way along the surface of the Sabie River in the distance. Only a chopper. And people call me a dumb animal. Chapter 1 Sean Bourke slung his LM5 rifle over his shoulder and grabbed Benny by the scruff of the neck. He buckled Benny’s green nylon webbing tracking collar on him and the dog’s alert status instantly ratcheted up a notch. Benny knew that when his collar came on it was time to go to work, that this was not play. However, as much as Benny loved working he did not like flying, and he started to whine again. Sean clipped on Benny’s short lead and held him steady as the anti-poaching helicopter settled into a hover, and then touched down on the cleared landing pad adjacent to the anti-poaching camp hidden in the bush not far from the luxurious Lion Plains Safari Lodge. ‘Eish, man, you’re getting heavy,’ Sean said to Benny as he picked him up and headed to the chopper. ‘Too much biltong.’ Benny was a Belgian Malinois, and when Sean described him, and the breed, to people who didn’t know them, he usually said his dog was like a compact German Shepherd and faster than the bigger dog. He had a black muzzle and a deep tan–coloured coat. Sean screwed his eyes shut against the wave of dust and grit that washed over him as he jogged, hunched over the dog, then turned and slid, butt first, into the helicopter. He was barely in when Francois, the pilot, started lifting off. Like all dogs, Benny loved riding in cars, even when confined to his travel kennel or a cage, and he was fearless in the bush, but flying reduced him to a terrified, whining mess. It was hardly surprising. Sean wasn’t mad about helicopters either. He hugged Benny closer. ‘It’s all right, my boy. We’ll be on the ground soon.’ There were two other green-clad men in the chopper and when Sean had found a seatbelt and fastened it on he nodded to Charles and Oliver. They were armed members of the team who accompanied the dogs and handlers, providing extra firepower. When they were rostered on duty, Charles and Oliver stayed in the same camp as Sean, but this evening they had gone out on patrol at dusk and, once it was dark, had set up a night observation post on a koppie, a rock-studded hill that overlooked a large chunk of the reserve. Both were good trackers in their own right. The leader of the anti-poaching unit, Craig, who doubled as another dog handler, was off duty. Charles smiled and waved to Sean; Oliver stared out the open side door of the aircraft, watching the ground. Benny barked and writhed in Sean’s embrace and it was only when Sean followed the dog’s gaze that he saw there was someone else on board, a woman, on the far side of Oliver, and another dog. Sean didn’t recognise the mouse-grey Weimaraner or the other handler, partly because she was all but obscured by Oliver’s bulk. The other handler on their team, Musa, had left the previous week to take up a job closer to his Zululand home, at the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, and the team had been expecting a replacement who they knew had just finished training at a place up at Hoedspruit, north of where they were. Sean had met women handlers in the police and the military and working in war zones overseas, but females were still something of a rarity in this particular role. Sean leaned as far as he could past the two men and waved to her. He yelled his name. He couldn’t hear what she said, but guessed she was introducing herself. She didn’t need to speak for him to recognise her fear. Her uniform was so new it was shiny, the creases factory-fresh. He looked down at her boots. They were spotless, still gleaming from weeks of spit-polishing during her basic training. Benny sniffed and his tongue lolled, his fear of flying overcome by his curiosity over his fellow passenger. Sean nodded to the Weimaraner. ‘Female?’ The woman must have heard, or read his lips. She nodded vigorously. ‘Gemma.’ The dog looked in good condition and her handler was pretty, big eyes, luscious lips, and Charles obviously thought so as well, because he started talking to her and whatever he said made her laugh. Sean looked out through the perspex windscreen of the cockpit. Francois was pointing. Sean unclipped a spare headset from the bulkhead and put it on. Oliver, who was also wearing a headset, tapped Sean on the arm, and also pointed ahead. ‘Francois has spotted the carcass.’ Sean craned his neck and saw the inert mass on the ground, lying in an open grassy vlei. ‘Downwind of the carcass, please, Francois.’ The pilot nodded. The dogs, Benny and Gemma, would initially be trying to air-scent, to pick up the trace of the people who had done this or their weapons and ammunition from their targets’ smells, tiny particles blowing in the night breeze. For this reason, they tracked, where possible, by walking into the wind to give the dogs’ noses a better chance of success. There was a large waterhole not far from where the killing had happened and they could all see the directions of the ripples caused by the wind on the moonlit surface. Francois knew the drill. He brought the helicopter down, flaring the nose. Sean undid his seatbelt, and the moment the skids touched the earth he and Benny were out. Oliver freed himself of the headset and he and Charles jumped out after them. Sean set down Benny, who was tethered to him by his lead, which was fixed to his webbing harness with a D-ring, and used his left hand to yank back the cocking handle of his LM5. He let the working parts fly forward, chambering a 5.56-millimetre round. The simple action triggered a shot of adrenaline, charging his senses and readying him for the pursuit to come. Benny also knew that sound and was ready for action, nose up, sniffing the breeze. Charles was kneeling in the grass next to them. Sean would have set off, but the helicopter was still turning and burning behind him. Francois should have been gone by now, Sean thought. He looked around and saw that the young woman and her dog were still on board. Oliver was on the other side of the chopper, yelling at the woman. Was she scared? Sean wondered. He unclipped the D-ring securing the leash and Benny bounded away, then stopped and looked back at Sean, tongue out, eyes bright, waiting for him to follow. ‘Sit.’ Sean ran around the front of the helicopter. He saw the problem immediately. The other dog, Gemma, had got her lead wrapped around the woman’s legs and the handler herself was having trouble getting out of her seat. Oliver was swearing at her. ‘It’s OK,’ Sean said. He brushed past the male ranger, looked in, and assessed the situation. Gemma’s leash was knotted into a loop and the woman had somehow threaded her seatbelt through the loop. He reached in, found the belt’s buckle, which was hiding under one of her ammunition pouches, and undid it. Next he unthreaded the lead. Gemma, confused and also panicked, jumped down and ran towards Benny, the lead trailing behind her. Sean took the woman’s hand and helped her out and down. He saw now that she was young. Francois, shaking his head, lifted off. Silence returned, but Oliver started his tirade, albeit in hushed, urgent tones. ‘What do you think you’re doing, you stupid girl? We have important work to do.’ ‘Chill, bru,’ Sean said. Oliver glared at him. ‘Don’t tell me what to do. Get your dog, start working.’ Ignoring him, Sean turned back to the woman. ‘You all right?’ She nodded, but he could see she was biting her lower lip. ‘Come.’ She nodded again and followed him, and Gemma returned to her side. Benny looked back, eager to get on with the job. ‘Check, Benny.’ On that command Benny went towards the dead rhino, sniffing. It was big, probably a bull, Sean thought, and its blood was a dark stain on the ground. Its horn had been taken off, down to the white bone. Benny circled the dead animal, nose down, then he stopped. He went tense, instantly even more alert. His body language told Sean he had picked something up. Sean came to him and looked down and ahead of where Benny was sniffing. The grass had been trampled and further on some low branches had been broken off a sapling. Sean shrugged off his twelve-kilogram backpack. Amid the six litres of water – four of which were for Benny – first aid kit, marker panel to signal a helicopter, food, toilet paper, GPS, handcuffs and extra ammunition, were Benny’s tracking harness and a six-metre long lead made of stout nylon cord encased in rubber. Sean quickly fitted the harness and this act, like attaching his collar, told Benny that they were about to get serious. Benny strained against him, eager to get on the trail. Sean stowed his gear and Benny’s short lead, but tucked the long lead behind the pouches fixed to his webbing, across his chest. ‘Benny, soek,’ Sean said, giving the command to seek, or find. Benny set off. The woman had done the same thing, but had attached a tracking lead to Gemma’s harness. ‘You’re working your dog off-lead?’ Sean nodded. ‘I thought we’re supposed to keep them on-lead at night-time,’ she said. She was clearly fresh out of training. He shrugged. There was work to do. ‘Full moon, plenty of light, and it’s Benny. He’s smart and experienced. Stick close to me and keep your dog on-lead.’ He began to follow Benny at a jog. ‘Yebo.’ Her rifle dwarfed her and her gear rattled as she ran to catch up with him. He would talk to her about the noise later, when they were done. Thorny branches scratched and snatched at him as Benny led him into the bush surrounding the vlei, towards the Sabie River. It was the dry season and the water level was low. Above them, Francois was flying a circuit. He would be checking the FLIR, the forward-looking infrared camera on board, seeking out the man or men’s heat signatures. For all the high-tech wizardry employed in the fight against poaching in South Africa, it was down to teams on the ground and, increasingly, dogs, to catch the people that the gadgetry sometimes detected. A hippo honked from the river, a reminder that humans were far from the only danger waiting for them in the gloom. Charles and Oliver kept pace with them. Then Benny gave a growl and Sean held up a hand to stop them all. Oliver muscled between Sean and the woman and Gemma, effectively pushing her to the rear of the patrol. Sean didn’t know whether he was trying to shield her from potential danger or cut her out of the action. Benny was sitting, ears up, tail sticking straight out behind him and resting flat. ‘He’s indicating,’ Sean said quietly, dropping to one knee. ‘Found something.’ ‘Make him attack.’ Oliver pointed to a thicket of raisin bush. ‘There is probably a poacher hiding in there.’ Sean shook his head. The hairs rose on his arms. ‘No, it’s something else.’ To the right of the bushes was a game trail, a hippo highway visible between a pair of giant jackalberry trees and leading down to the river. As they took it in, there was movement behind them and the Weimaraner ran past them, almost towing her handler behind her. The woman’s rifle, slung across her body, bounced on her back and swung around to her front as she stumbled and nearly fell. ‘Come back.’ Sean realised he still didn’t even know her name. The woman looked over her shoulder. ‘Gemma’s picked it up as well.’ Benny whined and looked at Sean as Gemma and the woman passed them. ‘No!’ Sean stood and ran. ‘Stop!’ On the game trail there was an irregular object, something that didn’t belong there, and Sean knew it was this that Benny had detected. ‘Benny, come.’ Benny stood, seemed to hesitate, but then turned and started to come back to Sean. ‘Stop!’ Sean called again to the woman, but either she didn’t hear him or Gemma was pulling so hard on her lead that the handler was concentrating all her attention on her dog. Gemma followed the scent all the way to the object in the pathway, with the woman in tow. ‘Hey.’ The woman stopped, at last. ‘It’s rhino horn. Right here, in the middle of –’ The night exploded. Chapter 2 Sean couldn’t work out how it had happened, but he was back in Afghanistan. The dust, the smells, the light; Benny, curious as ever as he worked off-lead, sniffing the rock wall that ran alongside the pathway that cut through the fields. Why? he asked himself. Why had he gone back when he’d sworn he never would? Craig was there as well, ahead of them, with his dog, Brutus, just entering the outskirts of the village and approaching the first flat-roofed mud-brick family dwelling. No! Sean tried to yell the warning, but the word wouldn’t form and he couldn’t stop Craig and Brutus before the wall of the compound beside them erupted, just as he had known it would. Sean saw the flash of light, felt the thump in his guts and the storm of heat, dirt and rock wash over him. Sean was on the ground, Benny was barking, Craig was screaming. Sean knew he had to get up, to go to his friend, who had been wounded. At the same time, experience told him there would be another IED planted somewhere nearby, and an insurgent watching, waiting for someone like him to move forward to help Craig. They hated dogs, these people, feared them for their effectiveness. To kill two dogs in one day would be a victory. Behind them an American was yelling into his radio. ‘Troops in contact, troops in contact!’ ‘Medic!’ someone else called. Benny was up first, and even though he hated loud noises, he knew his job. Sean got to his knees, then his feet, and stumbled forward. Benny worked, all the time, sniffing the wall, oblivious to the chaos. Dogs were like people; some were better at their jobs than others. The Americans liked Craig; he was confident and outgoing, and unlike Sean, a natural leader. However, while Brutus was a good dog, Craig always said, not bothering to hide his envy, that Benny was a brilliant explosive detection dog. Sean knew that if it were him lying bleeding and screaming in the dust, Craig would not have hesitated to charge forward, but as Sean started to jog, his feet felt encased in lead, the fear of the probable imminent explosion almost crippling him. Benny, who was in front, stopped sniffing and sat down, ears up and tail pointing straight. He was passively indicating, silently watching a spot in the dry-stone wall where he had, no doubt, detected more explosives. Shit, Sean thought. As he had suspected, there was another IED there, waiting for them. Somewhere, someone had a mobile phone or a garage door remote, waiting to press a button to detonate it. Sean knew he should stop, get a metal detector and check the wall, but Craig was writhing in pain in the dust. He had to get to him. Sean ran to Benny and briefly ruffled his neck, rewarding him for making the find that might now kill them. ‘Here, boy, come.’ He braced himself for the explosion, but nothing happened, and Sean ran past the spot where Benny had indicated and dropped to his knees beside Craig. ‘You’re going to be OK, boet.’ Benny trotted away, but Sean was preoccupied with his comrade. He ran his hands over Craig, checking him and trying to still him. Sean ripped open the remains of Craig’s shirt and unwrapped a shell dressing. Craig’s chest was peppered with shrapnel and there was a larger hole in his side that was oozing blood. Benny growled. Sean looked back over his shoulder and saw a man wearing a black turban climbing over the rock wall. ‘Benny, rim hom!’ Sean yelled, giving the command for Benny to attack. His dog’s demeanour changed instantly as he switched from curious detector to attacker and launched himself up and into the Taliban gunman. Benny’s jaws latched on to the man’s arm as he was trying to bring his AK-47 to bear. Sean turned and reached behind him, scooping up his M4 carbine from the dust and swinging it around. He thumbed the safety catch to fire and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. * Sean sat up on his stretcher, his bare torso drenched with sweat. For a moment he didn’t know where he was. When he realised it wasn’t Afghanistan, and that he had been dreaming, relief flooded through him. But it was banished just as quickly by the reality of the memories that plagued his sleep and, sometimes, his waking hours. The nightmare was true. In real life, however, Sean had shot the Taliban insurgent, killing him with a bullet to the head as Benny had continued to savage him, but a second later the man’s accomplice had rectified whatever fault there’d been in the remote detonating system and the rock wall had exploded, injuring Benny. The medics had worked first on Craig and then, while they waited for the evacuation chopper, on Benny. Sean had been left with the blood of his friend and his dog soaking into his uniform. He knew why this memory had come back to him. He saw again the flash of light and felt the thump of the explosive shock wave that had shattered the peace of the African night, and he heard again the young woman’s screams. Tumi. He had learned her name as he’d knelt beside her, holding her hand as they waited for the helicopter. While Charles had provided first aid for Tumi, Sean had worked on Gemma, her dog. The Weimaraner had taken the brunt of the blast and she was lucky to be alive, but he was not sure she would make it. Gemma’s left front leg was a shattered mess of skin and exposed, jagged bone and her body had been peppered by shrapnel. Her left eye had been bleeding. Both Tumi and Gemma had left on the chopper while the rest of them waited for Craig to arrive in the bakkie and extract them. Sean had sat there, while they waited, hugging Benny. The past and the nightmares he had long sought to escape and subdue had vividly returned to his present. Sean screwed his eyes tight. The permanent safari tent he lived in at the anti-poaching encampment was baking. He swung his legs over the side and, too late, remembered the broken glass. He felt the prick on the sole of his foot and snatched it back. Sean lay down again, closed his eyes and his head started spinning. He rolled over on his side. There was no way he would make it across the glass-mined floor and out to the ablutions. He vomited on the cement slab floor of the tent. At least Charles and Oliver, who had been dismissed to their homes in the nearby communities, were not around to see the state he was in. It was Sunday and, he remembered, he had a braai to go to, at Christine’s house, which had once been his home. His stomach flipped. Every time he saw her it was silently wrenching for him, inevitably bringing back memories of the brief but happy times they’d had together and making him feel again the shame of their break-up and the emptiness that had followed it. He took a look at the mess in his tent and grimaced at the smell of alcohol. At least the nearly finished bottle of Captain Morgan rum wasn’t broken. He surveyed the floor. The mountains of Afghanistan, when he’d flown over them in helicopters, had reminded him of broken beer bottles, the kind people stuck on the top of breezeblock walls in the old days, before razor wire. Sean felt stupid about breaking the glass, and throwing up. He didn’t binge drink very often, as he couldn’t handle it; alcohol was not his preferred method of escape from reality. Sean mapped a route through the glass and tiptoed outside. He walked barefoot to the ablutions, urinated, and found a mop, broom and a bucket. Benny’s ears pricked up and he stood and came to the gate of his enclosure. Benny slept with Sean in the tent most nights, but thankfully Sean had locked him in his kennel before he got too drunk. Sean had wanted to drink himself to sleep without Benny trying to get on the stretcher with him. The dog’s night home was spotless and roomy and fronted on to a grassy yard that was also fenced. ‘You always look happy, even when I lock you in the doghouse.’ Benny grinned and panted. ‘How do you do it, my boy?’ Sean went to his tent and did his best to corral and sluice out the mess. He gagged more than once as he worked, feeling disgusted with himself. That wasn’t new. He rubbed his chin. He should shave and shower before he went to the braai. Benny would enjoy the outing. Sean just needed to try to stop thinking about the girl and the dog lying there bleeding. Maybe he would drink again today, just not as much as last night. It was better than the alternative, and he was glad he had agreed to go to Christine’s place, and not spend his weekend in Nelspruit. ‘One day at a time,’ he said to himself as he mopped. Sean knew there would be more questions, from the police and the national parks hierarchy. The media would already be clamouring for people to talk to; he had deliberately not checked his phone or laptop to see what was on social media about the bomb. His mind started to turn and he knew he would regret the path he was taking, even as he took the first steps. What if I had gone ahead? Right now, he knew what he wanted, what he needed to soothe the tremor in the hands that held the mop, to banish the thoughts of the explosion and the blood from his mind. He needed the tinkle of the digital bells, the soft snickery sound of the cards leaving the shoe, the clack of the chips in his hands. Sean wanted an escape to dull his emotions, but at the same time he gave silent thanks that he would not have an opportunity. He felt the quiet rage bubble inside him. Benny barked. Sean went outside the tent and looked around. Benny could use a wash after last night, and Sean definitely needed to shower. Also, the tent was still far from clean. He filled a bucket and walked towards the enclosure. Benny’s eyes widened in terror. ‘Somehow, you always know when it’s bathtime.’ Sean laughed and tipped the water into a cut-down drum. He found the bottle of dog shampoo nearby and squirted some in. Benny cowered in the far corner but Sean strode into the enclosure, cornered him and grabbed him. As he lifted his dog he heard a rasping sound like a saw cutting through wood. Sean stood still and Benny whimpered and looked to him. ‘Hush, boy. I know that cat scares you, but you’re safe in here.’ It was unusual but not unheard of for Mbavala, the neighbourhood cat also known as Vin Diesel, to be calling in broad daylight. Sean set Benny down in the water despite the Malinois doing his best to prevent any of his four paws getting wet. Once he was in he settled, marginally, but kept looking around, eyes and nose searching for the leopard. The big cat ruled this part of the Sabi Sand and his territory included part of the Kruger Park across the river and along the watercourse to the Hippo Rock Private Nature Reserve, where people had holiday houses. He was the size of a lioness, a huge specimen, with muscled legs and a bullish neck that had earned him his nickname, after the solidly built American actor, Vin Diesel. His other name, Mbavala, meant bushbuck, in the local Shangaan language, in honour of his favourite prey. Leopard, Sean knew, generally made their distinctive call when looking for a mate, and Vin/Mbavala had sired a few generations in his time. However, Sean suspected the big cat might also just be taunting his canine neighbours, who had moved in to their new home near Lion Plains in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve as rhino poaching had increased. Sean scooped water over Benny’s back and lathered him with shampoo. ‘He can’t get you in here.’ Benny didn’t seem reassured and Sean knew just how cunning leopards were, and how highly they rated dogs on their menu. Vin Diesel must have had sex on his mind, because they didn’t hear the cat again. Sean finished cleaning Benny and lifted him out of the tub. For his efforts Sean was showered with a spray of water as Benny shook himself dry. Sean filled the bucket again and went back to his tent to finish cleaning. When he was satisfied that he had made the tent presentable again he set off to rid himself of the doggy and boozy odours that emanated from his body. Sean stood in the outdoor shower and looked up at the perfectly clear blue sky. He had seen death, in Afghanistan, but he had hoped never to see again the terrible aftermath of an improvised explosive device. There had been near misses in the past; poachers had been known to place a hand grenade with the pin removed under the carcass of a freshly slain rhino so that when the anti-poaching rangers or police arrived to investigate they might be killed or injured when they shifted the dead animal. But this was different. It had been a properly designed IED, similar to those he and Benny had encountered in Afghanistan, that had injured Gemma and Tumi. This was a first for the war on poaching, and while it had dredged up the traumas of his former life, he wanted to take the fight to the enemy. Sean knew that as Benny was the best EDD – explosive detection dog – in this part of South Africa, they had important, dangerous work ahead of them. The Lion Plains dog unit’s primary role was to deter or catch poachers and detect rhino horn and guns and ammunition. None of the other dogs had been specifically trained to detect bombs, like Benny had been in Afghanistan, and it would take time to get them up to speed. Sean felt frustrated; he would have liked to be out in the bush helping search for clues or evidence about who had planted the bomb, but the police had told them all to stay clear of the crime scene for now. Sean shaved in the shower, rinsed off and dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers. He took his car keys from the pocket of his green uniform trousers and whistled to Benny, who had retreated to the fence in order to keep a watch out for the neighbourhood cat. ‘He’s gone, Benny.’ Sean went to his Hilux bakkie, got in, whistled again, and Benny jumped up next to him on the passenger seat. * Christine Glover held up the blue sundress and looked in the mirror. It matched her eyes, but she wondered if it was too short. She surveyed her body and pulled in her tummy, just a little. She told herself she was still in good shape. She pulled the dress over her head, tugged it down over her hips and zipped it up. She looked in the mirror again and sighed. From the top of the chest of drawers next to the mirror she took her rings. As she slid them on she looked at the picture of her ex-husband Sean and his best friend Craig in Afghanistan. They both had beards and wore tan baseball caps. Craig was in full camouflage gear while Sean wore a black T-shirt that moulded to his muscular upper body. They carried American M4 rifles, and their dogs were next to them. Benny was by Sean’s side and poor Brutus was with Craig. Behind them was a building made of mud brick that would not have looked out of place in an illustrated version of the Bible. There was even a donkey in the corner to complete the scene. The men were grinning, arms around each other’s shoulders. Benny was looking up at Sean, adoringly, maybe even a little jealously. Christine touched the picture with a fingertip. Like the two men who had shared her life she had been to Afghanistan and was no stranger to death, but the bomb that had hurt Tumi and Gemma had shaken her. If someone was deliberately targeting dogs and handlers then that was a direct threat to her livelihood, her staff and the people closest to her. Christine heard a car engine outside and went to the front door. Craig drove his Land Cruiser up the long driveway of Christine’s farmhouse and turned off the engine. She paused before going out to greet him. He stayed sitting in the vehicle, gripping the steering wheel for a few moments, then got out. Christine drew a deep breath and walked out to meet him. ‘How did it go?’ ‘Tough. I’ve been with the cops last night and all this morning, not to mention the Sabi Sand’s warden and national parks public relations people. Everyone’s worried about the use of a bomb.’ They hugged and he kissed her on the mouth. ‘You look beautiful.’ ‘Thank you.’ He smiled. ‘I need to have a shave and get cleaned up.’ They walked into the house together, to the master bedroom. Craig unbuttoned his shirt, took it off and tossed it on the bed. He went into the en suite bathroom and turned on the sink tap. His torso was lean and hard, the muscles in his back well defined. Christine’s eyes were drawn again to the picture on the chest of drawers. Craig looked over his shoulder and followed her gaze before she had time to meet his eyes. ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Yes.’ Christine nodded decisively. ‘Probably not the best day for a braai, though, after what’s happened.’ He shrugged and lathered his face with shaving cream. ‘Ja, we’re going to have our work cut out for us, but at least the guys can blow off a little steam. It might help them and they can talk about what happened.’ ‘That’s what I’m worried about.’ Christine sat on the bed. She could see he was tired, but she needed to be kept up to date. ‘What did happen?’ ‘From the preliminary investigation it looks like the IED was command-detonated,’ he said. ‘You mean someone was there, waiting, to trigger it via remote or something.’ She knew the terminology. The thought that this had been a deliberate ploy to take out a dog and/or a handler chilled her. ‘Yes. The national parks PR people are predicting there’s going to be a huge amount of interest – probably more about the dog than Tumi.’ Christine shook her head. ‘Tumi’s OK?’ ‘Yes,’ Craig said. ‘I know that Julianne Clyde-Smith thought that Tumi might be of interest to the media as our first female anti-poaching dog handler, but not this way.’ Christine felt a flash of anger. ‘Well, Julianne Clyde-Smith may own Lion Plains and hold our contract, but this is my anti-poaching unit and I decide who gets the limelight. We need to protect Tumi.’ ‘I agree,’ Craig said as he shaved. ‘I think that with this new threat we have to keep her away from the press. If someone’s out to get us and our dogs we don’t want to make Tumi a bigger target than any of us is already.’ ‘Good. Sorry, I didn’t mean to raise my voice,’ Christine said. ‘Perfectly understandable.’ He put down his razor, flashed her a smile, then rinsed his face. ‘It’s a trying time for all of us. There’ll be questions in the days to come about her level of training, and about this change in tactics by the poachers, but we don’t want whoever is targeting us to learn more about us than they already know.’ ‘Yes. As operations manager I want you to be our main media spokesperson. Let the others know to keep quiet if the media contacts them.’ Christine stood and went to Craig and handed him a towel from the rack. ‘How is Gemma doing?’ ‘I called Graham and he drove down from Hazyview in the middle of the night, collected Gemma from Nelspruit and took her back to his surgery,’ Craig said. Graham Baird was a local wildlife and domestic animal veterinarian who had recently moved his practice from Hoedspruit to nearby Hazyview. ‘He had to amputate one of her front legs and she’s lost the sight in one eye. The blast shook up her internal organs. Graham’s not overly optimistic but he said the fact she’s still alive at all proves she’s a fighter.’ ‘Let’s hope she makes it,’ Christine said. ‘I’ll also need you and Sean to give the dogs some training in explosive detection. Other than Benny, none of the dogs can detect anything bigger than a bullet.’ ‘Good idea, but you know that could take three months or more.’ Craig hung up the towel. ‘I can work that into our selective detection training program, dig out some explosives for them to find while they’re busy ignoring my dirty socks.’ ‘I wish I could ignore the smell of your dirty socks,’ Christine said dryly as he went to the bed, sat down and unlaced his boots. While Craig occasionally went on patrol, his primary role was managing the anti-poaching unit and, as a partner in Christine’s business, he was also responsible for recruiting and training operators and dogs. Lately, he had been training all their dogs to differentiate between different human smells. Guides from the Lion Plains lodge sometimes took their guests on walks in the bush and Craig had explained to Christine that the dogs needed to be trained to not just follow or be distracted by any human scent they picked up, but to focus on the trail their handlers wanted them to follow. He had been using his own socks and clothing from the other team members as decoys while training the dogs. ‘In the meantime,’ Craig said, ‘Benny’s our only qualified explosive detection dog, so he and Sean are going to have to work overtime.’ ‘How is Sean?’ She tried to make the question as casual as possible, but she knew that Sean, a sensitive soul despite his years of paramilitary service, would have been affected by the explosion that had wounded Tumi and her dog. ‘I’ll keep an eye on him.’ The reply was noncommittal, but Christine didn’t want to push it. They had discussed the fact that Sean would eventually learn, if he hadn’t guessed already, that Christine and Craig had become more than just friends and business partners. Christine had told Craig that she wanted to wait a little longer before he or she told Sean, maybe once they knew Sean was in a better place, mentally. In fact, Christine was waiting to see how things panned out with Craig, and whether what they had was going to be a lasting relationship instead of a rebound fling. It was difficult – Craig wouldn’t be human, Christine thought, if he didn’t also feel some discomfort over sleeping with his friend’s ex-wife. ‘You’ll need a shower as well before the braai,’ she said, keen now to change the subject. After Sean and Christine had split, Craig had come to her financial rescue, investing in her farm and business, and she had given him the old farm manager’s cottage to live in. He nominally lived either there or in a tent at the anti-poaching camp on the Lion Plains property in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, forty kilometres away, but lately he’d been keeping his toothbrush and a couple of changes of clothes in the big farmhouse, where Christine lived. Craig finished taking off his boots and socks and stood. Even as she watched him undress her eye drifted back to the picture of him and Sean. He stepped back from her and out of his trousers. If he noticed her looking at the picture again he made no mention of it. He raised an eyebrow. ‘We’ve probably got time before everyone arrives. Let me shower first though, please.’ She nodded. He went into the bathroom, ran the water and stepped under. She didn’t join him, but by the time he had finished and towelled himself dry she had stripped down to her bra and pants. She wanted sex with him, loved his chiselled body, but the news of what had happened was threatening to unravel her. She forced a smile. ‘What’s wrong?’ She shrugged, then looked up at him, realising her brave face had slipped. ‘I don’t know. Everything. Nothing. I’m always worried when people – you – are called out at night. You and your guys have done such a good job at Lion Plains that you hardly ever have to deal with poaching incursions any more. I’ve got used to having you around, safe and sound, Craig.’ He went to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right. Sean will be OK. Tumi is going to be fine. Shame about Gemma, but she might pull through.’ ‘Yes. Shame,’ she said. ‘Audrey, the English volunteer who was staying here last month said she was amazed by the way we South Africans use that word. She pointed out that it covers everything from a broken fingernail and a term of endearment for a cute baby to a death in the family.’ He took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Shame, but I love you, my girl.’ She sighed. ‘Same. Hold me, please.’ He did, and didn’t try to stop the towel from falling from his waist. He undid her bra strap as they kissed some more and ran his hands down her back, over her bottom and inside the flimsy material of her underwear. Most days she wore plain khaki bush clothes on the outside, but she liked nice lingerie and she had put the dress on for him as well. She was trying to make this work, to forget about Sean. While she wasn’t sure how much she loved Craig, she was level-headed enough to know she needed him. Now. Goddamn Sean; he had hurt her. Craig had rescued her. He squeezed the soft skin of her bottom and she pressed herself harder against him. For a moment she forgot Sean, the bomb, the injured dog and handler, and surrendered to the pure physical joy as he touched more of her. They moved to the bed and Christine lay back. Craig rested a hand either side of her and looked down. ‘You’re beautiful, Christine Glover.’ Christine reached up and stroked his cheek. ‘I needed to hear that, Craig Hoddy.’ He smiled. ‘I’m glad I found you.’ ‘Me as well. Kiss me, please.’ He did, on her mouth, each of her breasts, and then where the warmth told him she wanted him as much as he needed her. Craig kissed the inside of her thighs as he slid her sheer pants off. She put her hands on his shoulders and brought his face back to hers and when he entered her it felt like he was taking her away. Their first time, two months earlier, had been charged with the feverish excitement of something illicit, even though she and Sean were already divorced. Afterwards, she had felt guilty, and she had told Craig it felt like she was cheating on Sean. Craig had assured her that she was not, but that he thought it might be best if they kept their relationship from Sean for a while longer. Christine had agreed, both because it was easier for her and because, if she was honest with herself, she feared that his knowing about it might lead to Sean leaving her life completely. If they could not be together, she at least wanted to know that he was OK. Now, as Craig slowly brought her closer to finishing, they moved in unison, both wanting to prolong this journey almost as much as they wanted it done. Christine cried out, the noise as much of a release as the act. ‘I love you,’ he said, as he rolled onto his side. She propped herself up on one elbow and stole another kiss. ‘Yes, I know.’ From outside they heard the honking of a horn. ‘Shit.’ Craig laughed, and Christine joined him as they both jumped up. As she reached for her dress and Craig rummaged through the drawer where he kept his things, Christine told herself to be pleased that she had lost track of the time. * Tumi Mabasa took a deep breath and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She heard music and laughter from the rear of the house. It looked like a nice place from the outside and she guessed the braai was in full swing out the back. She walked down the driveway to a fence and peered over. She was stiff and sore, but other than some abrasions where a storm of rocks and dirt had blasted her exposed skin, and a nasty cut and bump on her head which had bled all over Sean, she had survived the explosion without serious injury. ‘Hello?’ Craig appeared from around the corner of the whitewashed single-storey stone farmhouse. ‘Tumi? What are you doing here? The doctor told me you were going to stay in the Mediclinic overnight?’ She forced a smile and instinctively touched her right side, where she had landed hard after the blast. ‘He said I was fine to go, after all.’ ‘But surely you should be resting?’ Tumi shrugged, and that hurt as well. ‘Anyway, come through, please.’ He opened a gate for her and led her through. Tumi saw from the number of empty beer cans and bottles that the party had been going for a while. She was acutely aware of the way the conversation stopped as Craig led her into the grassy yard. Benny walked up to her and sniffed her crotch. She pushed him gently aside. Oliver Baloyi and Charles Dlamini watched her. Oliver didn’t even try to hide his scowl, but Charles’s look of wide-eyed surprise was punctuated with a big smile. Charles jumped to his feet, too quickly. ‘Tumi! How are you?’ ‘I’m doing OK, mostly thanks to you, Charles.’ ‘Oh, I just put on a couple of sticky plasters,’ he said. She felt self-conscious, embarrassed almost. Sean set down a bottle of Miller beer. His look was devoid of all expression. He walked over to her. Tumi was scared. She knew of Sean Bourke mostly by reputation. She felt a fool now for the mistakes she had made on her first real-life patrol. Sean and Benny had, it was said, been responsible for the arrest of more poachers in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve than any other team of handler and dog. He had also killed men, she’d been told, in the course of his duty. Sean came to her and stared at her with green eyes that would have been pretty if they hadn’t been so devoid of any recognisable emotion. One hand was behind his back. ‘On my first patrol, in Afghanistan, with the US Special Forces, the first time me and Benny tried to cross a river, he panicked and went underwater and somehow went between my legs. He was on-lead and we got tangled up with each other, just like you did, on the chopper.’ She swallowed hard and, unbidden, felt her eyes start to prickle with tears. ‘Difference was,’ he went on, ‘I almost drowned. But I learned a lesson.’ ‘I’ve been turning over what happened in my mind. You tried to get me to stop.’ He nodded, slowly. ‘Can you learn from your mistakes?’ ‘I can. I’m so sorry, Sean. I was so focused on Gemma, and she was pulling me so hard that I didn’t pay attention to what was going on – I was letting her control me, not the other way around, and . . .’ He held up a hand, and his solemn stare told her to be quiet. A second later his face broke into a broad grin and his eyes seemed to come to life and twinkle at her. From behind his back he produced a Savannah Light cider and a Red Square vodka drink. She took the Savannah. ‘All I ask is that you learn, Tumi. Now, welcome to the team, and, ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses, please.’ Sean raised his beer. ‘To Gemma, who took most of the blast. May she recover.’ ‘To Gemma,’ the others said. ‘And,’ he held his beer high again, ‘to Tumi, who will from this day forward be known as “Lefty” because of her two left feet.’ There was laughter from all of them except Oliver, and a clinking of bottles and glasses. Tumi smiled and gave a little bow. ‘Come, let me introduce you around,’ Sean said. Benny came up to her and sniffed her again. ‘He likes you.’ Tumi took a sip of cider. ‘I miss Gemma. I feel responsible for her nearly getting killed. She might still die.’ ‘It could have been you,’ Sean said. ‘I know it’s hard, but you have to put it behind you. In addition to the police investigation we’re going to do everything in our power to find out who planted that IED, Tumi.’ Tumi nodded. Just then, a woman she recognised from the K9 Force company website emerged from the back door of the house carrying a bowl of salad. Sean turned towards her. ‘Tumi, this is Christine Glover, the head of the company.’ Christine set down the bowl and came to Tumi, took her hand and gave her a kiss on the cheek. ‘Howzit, Tumi, I’m so pleased you’re with us today. Because Craig’s responsible for recruiting and training I don’t always meet our new employees before they start, but I’m sorry that in your case it had to be after this terrible thing happened. I did hope for you to go through some familiarisation training with the rest of the unit before we sent you out on your first call, but last night took us all by surprise. So, please accept my apologies for literally dropping you in it. We’re all holding thumbs for Gemma.’ Tumi’s lip trembled. She was almost overcome by Christine’s gracious welcome. ‘I’m . . . I’m sorry I let you down.’ ‘No such thing. We’re just all glad that you’re OK, but you must rest if you need to.’ Tumi nodded and saw a blonde woman, much younger than Christine, perhaps about Tumi’s own age, also emerge from what appeared to be the kitchen. ‘And this,’ Sean said, ‘is Zali Longmuir, who manages Lion Plains’s Jackalberry Lodge. I’m not sure how much you know about where we work, yet, but the Lion Plains property, which we patrol, is located within the Sabi Sand Reserve and has two luxury safari lodges, Jackalberry and Ivory.’ Sean was right; Tumi was still trying to get her head around all the names of the places, and while she had studied a map of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve and checked out Lion Plains and its owner, the wealthy British tycoon Julianne Clyde-Smith online, her situational awareness was still pretty limited. Julianne owned the property, Christine had the contract to supply anti-poaching rangers and dogs, and Zali, it seemed, worked for Julianne. Tumi was pleased she could show Zali that she was fit and ready for work. ‘Hi,’ Zali said. ‘Welcome, and nice to meet you. I’m relatively new, as well, I only started at the lodge three months ago. Shame, but you’re very brave to check yourself out of hospital.’ ‘I don’t know about brave, but thank you.’ Tumi thought Zali was overdressed for a braai. She wore a red dress with a zipper that went all the way up the front from top to bottom and high, strappy black heels. She was very pretty, but looked like she was out to snare a man. ‘You’re not working today?’ ‘No, thank God.’ She ran a hand down the front of her dress. ‘This is my escape outfit. I love working at Lion Plains in the bush, but sometimes I just want to go to town – even if town is Hazyview – and wear something other than khaki, if you know what I mean.’ ‘I do.’ ‘I had my hair and nails done at Perry’s Bridge this morning. On a day off I like to channel my inner girly-girl.’ ‘I hear you, sisi. I’ll have to get the number of your hairdresser, you look amazing.’ Tumi raised her bottle in a salute, but really she was just humouring Zali. Tumi was not a ‘girly-girl’ and all she really wanted to do was work with animals in some way and do something meaningful to help conserve wildlife. Getting her nails done was not a priority. ‘Just wait until you’ve been out in the bush for a couple of months. You’ll be dying for a pedi.’ Zali turned to Christine. ‘I don’t know how your boss lady here manages to keep herself looking so perfect, what with tending to her cats and dogs every day. By the way, Chris, I’d love to see your lions some time.’ Christine’s smile was thin and tight and Tumi’s radar came on. Despite the apparent flattery she wondered if there was some animosity between the two women. ‘Sure, Zali,’ Christine replied. ‘You’re welcome to come for a tour any time. Same for you, Tumi.’ ‘Thank you,’ Tumi said. ‘So,’ Christine said, ‘where are you from, Tumi? Are you a local girl?’ ‘No, I actually grew up in Joburg.’ ‘What part?’ Christine asked. ‘Illovo,’ she said. ‘Oh, a rich girl in our midst,’ Zali said, ‘and here I was telling you about the decadence of Hazyview’s spas.’ Zali laughed, and Tumi was sure she wasn’t trying to be mean, but she did not want to be seen as the privileged rich girl out slumming it. ‘My folks grew up in a rural area, near Mkhuze in KZN, but they’ve done OK for themselves.’ ‘Good for them,’ Zali said. Tumi’s family were from KwaZulu-Natal – KZN – originally and were Shangaan, like the people who lived near where her team would be operating on the border of the Kruger Park. It was a particularly poor part of South Africa and her mother had confided to her once that her grandfather had often snuck into the Mkhuze Game Reserve to snare buck and hunt with his dogs. He was long dead, but Tumi had never forgotten her grandfather’s fondness for his dogs; she wondered if she had inherited it, but she wasn’t going to tell her new work colleagues she was descended from a poacher. ‘It’s been a while since I lived in the city. I was studying at varsity for a while, living away from home, but I deferred. I wanted to get some work experience and save some money, and I’m mad about animals, so I worked as a field guide at Madikwe Game Reserve for a while, but then I decided I wanted to do something to help stop poaching.’ Craig coughed. ‘Sorry to interrupt, but Tumi, I need a full report from you in my email inbox by Monday morning, please. So, welcome and enjoy the braai, but go easy on the booze.’ She was grateful for the interruption. She didn’t want to explain why she’d had to quit university. ‘Yes, sir. I have to be careful in any case because I’m on painkillers. And I’ll bring the report to you in person. I’m not taking any time off.’ ‘You take as much time off as you need. You’re no good to me with one side of your body peppered with debris. And you can call me Craig.’ ‘Gemma, and the tree she wrapped her leash around, took most of the blast. I might not be able to work, sir, but I can still help out with the dogs, and I can still learn.’ Craig regarded her for a few moments and she wondered if she had said something wrong. ‘Very well. But take it easy. When you’re ready we’ll pair you with your new dog, Shikar, another Weimaraner.’ ‘Shikar?’ ‘It’s an Indian word,’ Craig said. ‘It means to hunt. She was Musa’s, the guy you replaced. She’s a good dog.’ ‘Thanks.’ Tumi smiled. Zali excused herself and Sean shepherded Tumi through the backyard. The smell of sizzling boerewors, which Craig had returned to tending, made her stomach grumble. Sean brought Tumi back to the other team members, Oliver and Charles. Both men had taken seats on green canvas camping chairs and they now stood. Oliver turned away from them. ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’ ‘Don’t mind him,’ Charles said when he’d left. ‘Oliver used to be a sergeant in the army. He trained recruits, so he takes pleasure in being rude to people. He’s a very fair person; he doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race or tribe or gender – he hates everyone.’ Tumi laughed along with Charles, but she was still uneasy about Oliver. The senior ranger had said virtually nothing to her the night before, when they had met for the first time, and now he seemed to be deliberately shunning her. She would try to reach out to him. The fact was that she had screwed up her first patrol. She would need to work hard to earn the trust of these men, even the ones who were being nice to her. Tumi felt even worse, if that was possible, because her training had been part-funded by a foreign non-government organisation called Canines for Africa that raised money to provide dogs and handlers for the fight against poaching. Despite Sean’s gracious welcome to the team, she was terrified of failing at this job because she would not only have let herself down, but also the people who had invested in her training. ‘Sean?’ Tumi looked around, as did Sean. It was Zali. ‘Please can you come and help me lay the table?’ Zali called. ‘I can help you, if you like,’ Tumi said. ‘No,’ Sean said, smiling, ‘you stay here and talk to Charles, and try to get to know Oliver, if he’ll let you.’ Chapter 3 ‘Refill?’ Sean said to Craig as he walked past the braai. Craig checked his beer. ‘I’m good, thanks. You go inside and do the woman’s work.’ Sean laughed and went in. The house was pleasantly cool. Zali was in the kitchen. He couldn’t help but admire the way the fabric of her dress clung to her bottom, nor notice the pale glimpse of thigh above her tan line as she got up on her toes to reach some wineglasses on a high shelf. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. ‘My knight in shining armour.’ ‘Housemaid, according to my best friend. Can I help?’ ‘Please. I need your extra inches, even in these heels.’ Zali giggled. ‘Sorry, I’ve had too much wine already.’ He came to her and she moved aside, just a little, as he took two glasses down for her. ‘How many?’ ‘I need four of those, please. Now, tell me again where the plates are.’ He took down another two glasses. ‘Bottom cupboards, the one on the far right.’ Zali must have seen the momentary pang of sadness in his eyes or heard it in his voice. ‘Sorry. I guess this must be tough for you, coming to a party in the house where you used to live.’ ‘I’m fine.’ He went to the lower cupboard and got the plates out for her. ‘I hope you don’t mind me inviting myself to your little get-together,’ she said. ‘Not at all, like I told you, I think it’s great.’ Sean hoped he sounded convincing. He liked Zali and what had started as a friendship, with her popping around to the anti-poaching camp to hang out in the afternoons, had blossomed into what she called a friends-with-benefits relationship. At thirty-five Sean was ten years Zali’s senior, and had never had a ‘FWB’, but it seemed to suit both of them. He did wonder, though, if Zali wanted something more – while they tried to coordinate their days off, he felt that she put more effort into aligning their schedules than he did. ‘Here, let me take those from you,’ Zali said, and when she took them her fingers overlapped his and she held them there. ‘How are you doing, after last night?’ He extricated his fingers. ‘I’m OK. It was rough, but I’m pleased Tumi’s OK.’ ‘Shame about Gemma.’ ‘Yes.’ He looked away. He felt the lump rise in his throat, then Zali’s hand on his shoulder. He looked at her. ‘I’m OK.’ ‘So you say. Do you want to talk about it?’ He shook his head. ‘Maybe later. But thanks for offering.’ ‘That’s what friends are for, right?’ She looked at him, into him. ‘And other stuff.’ They stood there in the kitchen, she holding the plates, the wineglasses on the benchtop, neither of them knowing what to say next. Sean wondered if Zali was thinking the same thing he was. Sean looked out the kitchen window and saw Christine standing beside Craig, who was tending the braai. Her hand was on his shoulder, and while she may have just been making a point, it was odd that Craig then covered her hand with his. ‘Look at me,’ Zali said. He did, and her eyes were the most vivid blue he’d ever seen. He took in her full lips, the same colour as her glossy nails. It almost felt like cheating, but Christine was out there, laughing with his best friend. The thought made him feel queasy. Then Zali kissed him and her mouth tasted sweet, like she’d been sneaking a chocolate from the bowl Christine had already filled for dessert. With her figure Zali could afford to be bad. They moved out of sight of the window and he backed her against the kitchen counter. She felt so damned good pressed into the length of his body. ‘Where can we go?’ she whispered in his ear when they momentarily broke. Sean peeked out the window again. Christine was laughing at something Craig was saying. Sean frowned. ‘Follow me.’ As he led Zali by the hand down the corridor, they passed the master bedroom, where he’d slept every night with Christine. He slowed, legs suddenly heavy, and he was thinking that this was a very bad idea and not worth the risk. Despite himself he glanced inside the room. Craig’s camouflage fatigues were strewn on a chair and the floor, and his shirt was on the bed. The bed was unmade, which was very unlike Christine. She had always insisted on making it every morning as soon as she got up; she said a messy bed offended her sensibilities. Not now, obviously. Maybe she and Craig had been surprised by him honking his horn as he drove up the access road. He looked to the bureau and couldn’t help but notice that the picture of Craig and him was face down. Zali squeezed his hand. ‘What’s the problem?’ Sean clenched his teeth and fists, his fingernails digging into the palms of his hands. He had to tell himself to breathe. He closed his eyes; the flash of anger was washed away by a wave of hurt. ‘Absolutely nothing.’ On unsteady legs he hurried Zali on, past the guest bedrooms to the bathroom visitors used when they stayed. Sean ushered Zali in, checked up the hallway, then closed and locked the door behind them. Zali mistook his rushing for lust, not the running away that it was. She kissed him hard as she reached down and undid his belt and the button on his shorts. This was all happening fast, but he didn’t care. He unzipped the front of her dress. ‘All the way,’ she breathed into his ear. He did as ordered and the front fell open. Zali reached down and wriggled out of her G-string. She was bare down there. Christine never waxed. He actually preferred the hair, but Zali’s passion had inflamed him and he wanted to try to force his ex-wife from his mind right now. ‘Sit up on the vanity,’ he said. ‘Too cold.’ She turned and arched her back, bending at the waist. He needed no encouragement. Zali’s eyes met his in the mirror above the basin and she winked at him. She looked over her shoulder and he kissed her as he lifted up her dress and touched her. In her heels Zali was just right and he entered her from behind. ‘Yes,’ Zali said, loud enough to be heard in the kitchen along the hallway. ‘Shush,’ he said. She pushed back against him and he forgot about trying to silence her as their bodies slapped together. Sean dug his fingers into her hips and Zali nodded in the mirror. He wasn’t trying to hurt her, just to forget. ‘Fuck, yes.’ Zali touched herself as Sean moved in and out of her, savouring the vision of her mounting pleasure in the bathroom mirror. Sean reached around and put a finger to her lips and she sucked it in, at first, then bit down on it as her body started to shake. He barely registered the pain as he erupted. They hurriedly zipped up and kissed again. Sean looked in the mirror and wiped lipstick from his mouth as Zali brushed her hair away from her face. ‘We need to get back to the party,’ he said. ‘Thank you, as well,’ she said. ‘Sorry. That was great.’ Zali grinned. ‘It’s OK, isn’t it?’ He nodded. ‘OK, you’re right, let’s get back out there.’ Unlocking the door, she led him up the hallway towards the kitchen. Tumi opened the back door and walked into the kitchen just as they reached it. ‘Oh, hi, Zali, Christine was wondering how you were doing. Can I help?’ ‘Sure,’ Zali said, ‘if you insist. Shall we set the table?’ Sean went to the refrigerator, glancing out the window as he did so. ‘Craig looks like he needs a beer.’ As he opened the fridge door and reached in to get two bottles, Sean felt Zali’s hand on the small of his back. He looked over his shoulder. Tumi was busy, not watching them. Sean reached around and put his hand on Zali’s. The small touch was comforting. Then he let go and went outside with the beers. * Later in the afternoon, after lunch, Sean sat outside in the garden with Craig, Charles and Oliver. Zali was in the house helping Christine stack dishes, as it was her domestic’s day off. Tumi had gone home. ‘She was pretty beat up from the blast. I’m surprised she came,’ Sean said. Oliver drained his beer and reached into the cooler box beside his chair for another. ‘I’m surprised she dared show her face.’ ‘That’s a little hard, man,’ Craig said. He had switched to brandy and Coke. Oliver narrowed his eyes. ‘She screwed up everything from the moment she got off the helicopter. I tell you, this is not a job for a woman.’ ‘Chill, brother,’ Charles said. ‘I am not your brother, Charles. I’m your supervisor.’ Sean decided he would stay out of this discussion. The more he drank, the angrier Oliver got, and Sean was having trouble keeping his own emotions in check, too. He kept thinking of Craig and Christine in his bed. Her bed, he reminded himself, but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow. He lowered his eyelids and concentrated on his breathing. ‘Sean,’ Oliver said, and he looked up. ‘You saw her. Tell Craig. She fucked up on the helicopter, couldn’t even get off; she ignored your command to stop and she blundered into that bomb. The only thing that saved her life was that she screwed up again by getting her dog’s leash wrapped around a tree that shielded her from the blast.’ Sean took a sip of beer. ‘Like I told her, we all make mistakes.’ ‘And,’ Craig said, ‘let’s not forget she had the courage to come here, with her wounds, to face the likes of you, Oliver.’ Oliver shook his head at the others’ chuckles. ‘It’s not a joke. I know we’re under pressure to employ more females, but she’s going to put all of us at risk.’ ‘Well, for now,’ Craig said, ‘she’s on light duties for a couple of days until her wounds heal, and she has to get used to working with another dog. I want you to work with her, Sean.’ ‘Me?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I’m not a trainer.’ He didn’t want to be taken off patrol duties if there was some evil bastard setting IEDs to kill dogs and handlers. He drained his beer and tossed the empty aside, into a pile of others on the grass. ‘I need to be in the field. We need to be out in the bush looking for whoever did this, not sitting here drinking and talking shit.’ Craig nodded, but smiled. ‘Time for you to chill, as well, boet, but I hear you. Right now you’ve got more experience than any of the other handlers. You need to teach her how to survive this new threat. Work with her and Shikar, get her confidence up, and we’ll both give Shikar some explosives detection training.’ ‘And keep doing your day job.’ Charles laughed. ‘Sheesh, Craig, that could take months, time we don’t have. Stick a broom up my arse and I’ll sweep the floor as well,’ Sean said. Normally he wouldn’t have questioned Craig’s orders or judgement, but the sight of Craig’s dirty shirt on Christine’s rumpled sheets kept coming back into his mind. Craig clapped him on the shoulder. ‘If I didn’t think you’d like it so much, boet, I surely would.’ Oliver finished his beer in just his third swallow. ‘I say Tumi gets one more chance only. That is how I would manage her.’ Craig said nothing. Oliver was bordering on insolent, Sean thought – it was not up to him to say how Tumi should be dealt with, it was Craig’s call. However, Sean could see that Craig was letting Oliver vent, rather than bringing on a confrontation. Craig had a good way with people and was a natural leader; he had to give him that. After recovering from the wounds he’d sustained in the contact where Sean had saved him from the Taliban gunman, Craig had moved to Kabul to a senior role in the company they’d worked for, overseeing the in-country training of new handlers and their dogs. Sean, on the other hand, had turned down offers of promotion to managerial positions in Afghanistan, preferring to be in the mountains and rocky deserts with Benny. Charles stood up. ‘Guys, I’ve had too much to drink. On that I think we can all agree.’ ‘This is the earliest I’ve ever seen you leave a braai, Charles,’ Craig said. Charles tossed his empty beer bottle in the bin. ‘I thought I might look in on Tumi, to make sure she’s OK.’ ‘You sly dog,’ Craig said. Charles gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘What can I say? I’m all heart.’ ‘All something else. Be careful, man,’ Craig said, his tone turning serious, ‘she’s had a rough time, and despite what Oliver says about her she is one of us, for now at least.’ Charles gave a salute. ‘Affirmative.’ After Charles had left, followed by Oliver, it was just the two of them, Sean and Craig. Sean opened another beer, perhaps, he thought, to give himself some Dutch courage; he was longing to ask Craig what was going on with Christine, and at the same time dreading the answer. ‘This is going to be my last.’ ‘ABF,’ Craig said. ‘Absolute bloody final. I’ll believe that when I see it, China. Hey, you and Zali seemed to be spending a lot of time together today.’ ‘What about it?’ Sean said, too quickly, too defensively. Craig held up both hands in a peace gesture. ‘Hey, I don’t want to interfere, and you’re both single and over twenty-one.’ Sean was quietly seething. What angered him, as well as Craig being with Christine, was that they were apparently intent on hiding their relationship from him, and he didn’t have the balls to confront Craig about it. Sean needed to change the subject. ‘What’s going to happen next, about the bomb?’ Craig shrugged. ‘You know how slow the cops are here, boet. They’re calling in a forensics expert who specialises in explosives, but they have to come down from Joburg, and they’re going over the scene again with a fine-tooth comb. The game has changed for us, for the dog handlers.’ ‘You think whoever set the booby trap was deliberately trying to get one of us, or a dog?’ ‘Ja. We know the poachers have been trying various countermeasures – cayenne pepper and chilli to put the dogs off the scent, even baits. We’re a victim of our own success. The bad guys know that we’ve been a game changer and now they could be targeting us. We’ve got to be careful.’ Sean nodded. It had been the same in Afghanistan. There the Taliban had developed tactics to confuse sniffer dogs, planting food treats or tennis balls near hidden IEDs to distract dogs from the real thing. Taliban snipers had also been known to target dogs and handlers ahead of other soldiers. Sean rubbed his chin. ‘Since when did poachers start manufacturing IEDs?’ ‘Since now, I guess. I’m hoping this bomb specialist can give us a clue as to how the device was made.’ ‘It’s their strategy, as well as their tactics that worry me,’ Sean said. ‘Whoever did this killed a rhino and took its horn just to leave it as bait for us and our dogs, and then they tried to kill Gemma and Tumi. It’s like they want to start the war all over again, to take out Lion Plains’s rhinos, but first they have to remove us as a threat.’ ‘Whatever they’re up to we have to be prepared for more of this shit,’ Craig said. ‘If they’re targeting us in the bush with booby traps, they may look for us and our people outside of work too, in the townships and when we’re on leave, when we least expect it.’ ‘It’s like Afghanistan all over again,’ Sean said. Chapter 4 What Zohair Mohammed liked about Mozambique was that it bore no similarity to Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or even Pakistan. He opened the sliding doors of his apartment and breathed in the tangy salty air. Zohair loved this view out over the sparkling blue Indian Ocean. Maputo’s chaotic traffic was far enough below and behind him to register only as a backing track of horn honks and the duff-duff of car speakers with the bass turned up. The scent of peri-peri chicken sputtering on hot coals wafted up to him and made his stomach rumble pleasantly. Lunch would have to wait. He went back into the flat. There was more work to be done. He had been born in Africa, in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. His parents had owned a general dealers store there, but when he was sixteen they had moved the family back to their homeland on Pakistan’s north-western frontier. Zohair’s parents were devout Muslims and he had completed his education in a madrasa. After school he had gone to university in Lahore and studied electrical engineering. He had always been fascinated by electronics and even while studying he had run a small business repairing electrical appliances, radios, televisions and, as they became more widespread, mobile phones. When the Americans invaded neighbouring Afghanistan, after the 9/11 attacks, there had been no shortage of sympathy for al-Qaeda and the Taliban mujahideen in the mountainous province where Zohair lived. The insurgents from Afghanistan crossed the border, seeking refuge, and as the war ebbed and flowed its tide washed over Zohair. During a period of military service, he had been allocated to the signals corps, and there he had fast gained a reputation as an IT expert, with the added benefit of being able to fix various pieces of ageing equipment. One day a man from Islamabad came to his village. He was well dressed, educated and urbane. He sought out Zohair, on the pretext of needing to get his mobile phone fixed. The man stayed in the village for a few days and made repeated visits to Zohair’s shop. In time, he revealed himself as a member of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the ISID. While Pakistan was officially taking no part in the war in Afghanistan, and the country’s leadership was ostensibly pro-American, Pakistan’s secret intelligence service was quietly furthering the country’s interests by providing support to the Taliban. Pakistan was wary of Iran, which was also supporting the anti-American and coalition effort, and in order to contain Iran’s influence in Afghanistan the ISID was supporting pro-Pakistani Pashtun insurgents who were killing Americans. It was complicated, to say the least, but Zohair’s role would be simple. His expertise in all things electronic and digital was needed, the ISID man had said, to make bombs for Pakistan’s friends across the border. He had been stupid, he now realised. He had been offered money and the recruiter had preyed on his as-then untested love of God – for this was to be jihad that he was taking part in – and his vanity. Zohair’s second problem, after his naive stupidity, was the fact that he was very, very good at what he did. He had learned, from the ISID and military officers trained in demolitions and bomb disposal, how to make improvised explosive devices – IEDs – and how to design them so that they might defeat the increasingly sophisticated countermeasures the Americans and their allies were frantically developing. As he sat back down at the dining room table in the two-bedroom apartment and got to work soldering a circuit board, he reflected on how his skill had almost cost him his life, on several occasions. Zohair had done so well as a bombmaker, and his devices had killed and maimed so many of the infidel soldiers, that the Americans had put a price on his head. Zohair had done most of his work in Pakistan. He and his colleagues supporting the struggle would receive notice via the ISID of military raids – token efforts designed by the Pakistani Army to placate their American allies – and have time to make themselves scarce before the soldiers arrived. However, as the war progressed, the Americans took to more unilateral actions. They were looking, always, for the Sheik, Osama bin Laden, and the Great Satan’s network of corrupt informers also survived on tip-offs about arms dealers and, especially, bombmakers. What particularly drew the ire of the American military was not just the number of men that Zohair’s devices had killed or wounded, but also the number of explosive detection dogs. Dogs had proved early on to be one of Zohair’s greatest enemies. He had studied the enemy’s tactics and training and worked out ways to counter the canine threat to his handiwork. Sometimes the simplest solution was the best. He would construct a small IED, nothing too complex, and instruct the Taliban fighters to place it somewhere obvious, by a pathway, not buried too deeply. The idea was that the device would be detected by a dog. Then, when the explosive ordnance disposal people moved in to destroy or try to disarm the device, a much bigger, more sophisticated device, perhaps concealed in a dry-stone or mud wall near the decoy, would be command-detonated, using a signal from a mobile phone or an automatic garage door remote control. This would have the effect of killing the dog, its handler and whoever had come forward to investigate the first IED. Tactics changed over time, though, and when the Americans and their lackeys had developed jamming devices, Zohair began switching from making bombs that were detonated by remote control devices to command wire detonation and old-fashioned pressure plates, requiring the man, or dog, to step on a switch. Components changed, as well. His earlier devices had been packed with homemade shrapnel – nuts, bolts, screws, nails, even old kitchen forks – but as the coalition forces became more adept at using metal detectors and these became more widespread he’d had to rethink the best way to inflict harm. This was where the natural environment came into play. The walls along farmers’ fields were often made of rocks, and by planting explosives and a detonator inside a wall, then the building material itself, when flung outwards, was almost as good at killing and injuring as introduced shrapnel was. And even if an IED did not kill, it still served its purpose. The Americans and others were scared. Their operations were slowed and hampered by the need to search for IEDs and when detonation occurred, even if a man was simply injured, then it still took time and resources to evacuate him and gave the mujahideen in the area time to escape, or an opportunity to target those experts who came to assess the blast. His phone rang. ‘Yes?’ ‘It is ready, the product we spoke of?’ asked the man on the other end of the call. ‘Almost.’ ‘Almost? You said it would be done by now.’ Zohair sighed. ‘This is not, I am sure you understand, work that can be rushed. You will be able to collect it in half an hour, no less.’ ‘All right. I will be there in thirty minutes.’ ‘Fine.’ He ended the call. The man was Chinese, an ex–People’s Liberation Army officer. He was rude. Zohair liked the African way of interacting, which was similar to his own countrymen’s. A person did not come straight to the point of a conversation or business deal, one spent time greeting, asking after the other, taking time, perhaps sipping tea. The Chinese man barked like a dog. Zohair hated dogs. As quickly as he or his comrades changed the makeup of explosives the dogs would be trained to detect the new compounds. It was a game, where each side had to continually adapt and learn. His new enemies would learn soon, and they would be studying hard in the wake of the IED blast. He had read about it, online, on the South African news sites and on Facebook, which he monitored. The dog’s name was Gemma. He saw the picture of her, and her female handler, whose face had been pixelated out, to protect her identity. All the same he could not help but notice the swell of the woman’s breasts and narrowness of her hips. That was what Zohair had missed most about Africa, more than the sea and the sunshine and the beer (his family never knew that he drank, but he had done as a youth and had started again on his return to Africa) – more than all that, he had missed the women. He had just been discovering them when his parents had taken him back to Pakistan, where their religion had been more of a jailer than a guide. He had been a willing prisoner during the Afghan war, telling himself he had been supporting a noble cause. He wondered, now, if it was the respect and praise of the men who used him that had kept him making bombs, rather than his love of God. These days it was neither, it was money. Zohair finished soldering, but left his rubber gloves on. He did not expect the Mozambican police, nor even the South Africans, to be as sophisticated in their forensic sciences as the Americans had been in Afghanistan, but he was not taking any chances. His DNA, despite his best efforts, was on various databases in the western world and he did not want to leave any trace on this device that might be used to track him down again. He was still on a wanted list. He stood, stretched his aching back and went to the refrigerator. He opened the door and took out a Dois M beer, Mozambique’s finest. He took the cap off this first – and definitely not the last – beer for the day and went out onto the balcony. There was music, salsa maybe, something Latino, something undeniably sexy, wafting up on the spicy current. That was something else he had missed, especially during his brief time in Syria, where the madness of the Caliphate was all-pervasive. He was away from all that now, Allah be praised. There was a knock at the door. He went back inside. ‘Yes?’ he said, one ear cocked. ‘It is me.’ Zohair looked through the peephole. The Chinaman was alone; Zohair opened the door. ‘Come in.’ The man wore a suit, despite the heat outside. His shoes were polished. Once a soldier, always a soldier. Zohair fancied the man might goosestep as much as walk to the dining table. ‘You are finished?’ ‘I told you I would be. Would you like a beer?’ ‘No time. Business to do.’ Zohair set down his drink and went to the table. He carefully placed the device into a daypack, padded with foam. He picked up a garage door remote control. ‘Command-detonated, with radio waves, as briefed,’ he said. ‘Good,’ said the Chinaman. ‘You press the red button. Red is dead, got it?’ The man nodded. ‘I understand.’ ‘Range is about a hundred metres.’ ‘That will be fine,’ the man said. He reached into the inside breast pocket of his suit and took out a brown envelope, which he handed over. Zohair opened it and flicked through the wad of cash. There should be five thousand US dollars in there; not bad for a day’s work, but less than ten per cent of the retail value of a kilogram of rhino horn. ‘You will make ten more IEDs, yes?’ Zohair nodded. ‘That was the deal, yes. I will have them ready by the allotted times.’ ‘We may need more.’ ‘Then we may need to renegotiate my fee,’ Zohair said. The Chinaman smiled. ‘You think you can out-negotiate a Chinese?’ ‘I think you need my skills, and there is probably no one else in this part of Africa who can do what I do.’ The man wagged a finger at him. ‘You are being well paid. Also, it would only take one phone call to the American embassy and you would find it would be Navy SEALS in black masks knocking on your door next time, and not someone as friendly as me.’ Zohair didn’t return the smile. He had been threatened by far more dangerous men than this pumped-up little neo-colonialist functionary. There was nothing wrong with this man that a couple of kilograms of fertiliser and diesel fuel mixed up and hidden in his car wouldn’t fix. ‘You need me.’ ‘For now,’ the man said. Zohair spread his hands wide in a placatory gesture. ‘Then let us not fight. Take some tea with me, if not a beer.’ ‘I must go. In China we value punctuality; none of this “Africa time”.’ Zohair nodded and saw the man out. He went back outside and looked at the clear blue sky. It had been like that, the day they had come for him, in Pakistan. It had been, of all things, a bad meal of goat that had saved him. He had been collected, in a car, to be taken to provide training for some fighters who had chosen to become martyrs. He would teach them how to work the suicide vests he had prepared for them to wear, which they would detonate at checkpoints manned by the Americans and their dogs, the Afghan National Army and police. He had gone downstairs and got into the Peugeot, but as the driver had begun to leave the curb Zohair had put his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Wait, I need to go back inside, to use the toilet.’ It had been like that all night. He got out of the car and was at the entrance to the apartment block where he lived, when a streak of smoke stained the clear blue winter’s sky and a burning light descended upon the little car. Zohair had been picked off his feet and thrown inside, through the mercifully open door. Part of the building had collapsed, blocking him inside, and his arm had been fractured and he had suffered a concussion. But the driver and the car, and four innocent bystanders on the street, had been obliterated by the Hellfire missile that had been fired from a Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a UAV, or ‘drone’ as it was subsequently referred to in the media coverage. The commanders had moved him after that, not just to another city or town or compound in Pakistan, as they had done previously when there had been threats; they had taken him to another country and another battlefield in the struggle. Syria. He had hated it there. His nerves had been on edge more or less constantly, so much so that he risked his own life every time his shaking hands picked up a soldering iron or he tried to mix the chemicals needed to make explosives. There had been rocket fire and bombing, from the Syrian government, the Americans, the Russians, the Australians, the Jordanians. As the city of Raqqa disintegrated around him so did any semblance of order that the rulers of the self-styled Caliphate might once have had. Those wide-eyed radicals did not praise or respect him, they threatened him with death if he ever so much as questioned an order. At their direction, he had perfected the use of small drones to deliver grenades and IEDs. Ironic, since he had been nearly taken out by a UAV himself, but he had taught the Syrians and the foreign fighters how to turn small, commercially available hobby drones into frightening weapons of destruction. Perhaps some commander with half a brain had sensed his growing disenchantment, because he had been given a wife, Yasmin, a pretty thing of Somali descent, presumably to keep him happy and committed. She had come to the Caliphate willingly, although when they were alone and she realised her new husband was kinder than most of the other fighters, and not likely to inform on her, she had confessed that Syria terrified her. It wasn’t just the bombing and shelling, but it was the cruelty of the men, themselves traumatised by war and brainwashed into behaving like beasts of the jungle. Zohair fell in love with her and Yasmin opened up to him, telling him that she wanted to go home. She took a huge risk by revealing this, and perhaps it was that she reminded him of Africa, or because he had been at such a low ebb, but he considered the unthinkable. In the moments they laid together, in between making bombs and suicide vests and modifying drones to carry hand grenades, before the fatigue overtook him, they would make whispered plans to escape. They had been ready to leave, bags packed, but Yasmin had confided in a friend, an English-born Muslim girl, who had betrayed them. The hard men had come for him and Yasmin with dogs, in the middle of the night. What they and their dogs had done to her, in front of him . . . Realising that he was clenching the balcony railing so tightly that his knuckles had gone white, Zohair forced himself to relax, concentrating on the whine and honk of the traffic and the beautiful, swaying music that Yasmin would have loved. It was true, he needed money to live the life he craved, to properly escape from the terrors of the past, but when the Chinaman had come to him saying he was specifically looking for IEDs that would target tracker dogs and their handlers, Zohair had been almost tempted to believe in God again. He didn’t though, not any more. He believed in money, and part of him still lusted for revenge, if not against the men who had defiled and killed Yasmin, then at least their animals. In Pashto, to call someone a dog was the most terrible insult, and Zohair had particular reason to hate these animals after he had watched the woman he loved . . . He swallowed the memories that threatened to unleash a tide of emotions. It would have been harrowing enough to have simply watched her be killed by the dogs, but there had been more. Daesh had given some sick men the opportunity to live out their most vile fantasies in the name of a cruel and sadistic deity. Zohair spoke aloud, perhaps to a vengeful God, who might guide his hand and help him eliminate more of the loathsome creatures. ‘I hate dogs.’ Chapter 5 The Sabi River Sun resort and golf course was busy on a Saturday morning so Tumi had to park her BMW 4 Series convertible on the grass just off the access road to the car park. The long dry South African lowveld winter was coming to a close, and while the day was shaping up to be sunny and warm there was still a chill in the air in Hazyview just before eight in the morning. When Tumi got out she decided to leave her long-sleeved running shirt on over her singlet top. It had been a week since the bomb blast and the cuts and scratches she had suffered were healing well, but like the rest of the team she still felt on edge in the wake of the violent, deliberate ambush. Gemma, the dog she had barely had time to get to know, was still in the veterinary surgery’s version of intensive care. Charles, whom she was learning was the most upbeat and optimistic guy in the unit – not to mention the cutest – thought the bomb was a one-off, but Oliver was urging caution and pushing for more patrols of the Lion Plains perimeter roads, concentrating on looking for the tracks of poachers coming into or out of the reserve. The roads doubled as firebreaks, their verges cleared on either side, and Oliver maintained it would be easier there to spot places where a bomb might be placed. Tumi was learning a lot about military tactics in these debates. Sean, who was a good teacher, if moody and quiet, said the way to defeat an enemy was to continue aggressive patrolling, deep into the bush, even if that increased their risk. Sean and Benny, as the best explosive detection team, were working long shifts and would sometimes go off by themselves for hours on end. Tumi wondered if Sean might be looking for time alone to think, but each day he also took her and Shikar on a light training patrol. In between, he was getting Shikar up to speed with detecting explosives, when Craig wasn’t training the dog to track human scents selectively. The schedule was hectic and their Sunday afternoon braai the week before seemed more like a year ago. Today, Sean had warned her, was physical training and she was half excited about and half dreading what he had in store for her. ‘Nice car, Lefty.’ She turned and saw Sean. He looked lean and wiry in running shorts and a T-shirt, legs thin and muscled, arms toned. ‘Hah, hah. It’s a hand-me-down from my dad,’ she said. Sean gave a low whistle. ‘Sure. I’d like to see what he upgraded to.’ ‘I’m looking forward to some exercise,’ Tumi said, wanting to change the subject. The car had been a birthday gift from her father, when they were on better terms. She didn’t want Sean thinking she was a spoiled kid doing this job for fun, but nor did she want to explain how her domineering father had cut her off financially because she wouldn’t follow the career path he had mapped out for her. At least he hadn’t taken the car back. Sean seemed content to drop it. ‘We’ve only walked on patrol this week. You’re sure you’re fit to run?’ ‘I’m fine and I feel good.’ She told herself she was ready for whatever he wanted to throw at her. Tumi was still embarrassed by the mess she had made of her first patrol the previous week, but she had been encouraged by Sean’s friendliness at the braai and the walks in the bush they had undertaken since, even if it did feel like she still had her training wheels on. As Sean had told her, what they had done over the past few days really should have happened before that night insertion by helicopter where everything had gone wrong. ‘Good.’ ‘But Parkrun?’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘It hardly seems like hardcore training.’ ‘You’ve never chased a man for real.’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘Only in my basic training.’ ‘And that was what, a kilometre, maybe?’ She shrugged. ‘I can’t remember.’ ‘If you get a hot pursuit, if we pick up the scent of a poacher, your dog is going to run as fast as it can. A man on the run, fearing for his life, is fuelled up on adrenaline. You’ll have to run faster than you did in training; none of your instructors thought he was about to get a bullet in his back.’ ‘I understand.’ ‘Do you run?’ he asked her. ‘Sometimes.’ They had exercised during training, and it was true that when she was studying she had occasionally gone for a jog. She never checked the distances or timed herself, but she ran until she was struggling for breath and had worked up a sweat. She ate well, rarely drank to excess, and liked to think she had a good figure. She could do this. A crowd of about sixty people was coalescing for the weekly five-kilometre run. ‘Why here?’ Tumi asked. ‘It’s hard to find places to run where we work. We can’t run in the game reserve because of lions, leopards and other dangerous game. Also, Hazyview’s higher in altitude than Lion Plains so running will be harder here.’ Tumi grimaced. ‘What have I let myself in for?’ He looked her in the eye. ‘Training. We train hard . . .’ ‘And fight easy,’ Tumi said, repeating the sentence he’d said more than once this week. ‘Is that what you learned in the war, in Afghanistan?’ ‘You’ll see.’ The blonde woman coordinating the event called the crowd together and briefed them on the run, which basically followed the perimeter of the property. ‘Watch out for flying golf balls,’ she said. ‘And hippos and crocs in the water features.’ A few people laughed. Tumi wondered if the woman was serious. The runners moved towards the start point on the road and then the coordinator gave them the command to go. Sean and Tumi took off, not in the lead, but among the first dozen or so runners. Tumi felt adrenaline coursing through her. She wanted to do well, to show Sean that she was fit enough for the job, and up for any challenge he decided to put in her way, and maybe even show her father that she could succeed at whatever she wanted to do with her life, even if it wasn’t what he thought was fit for his baby girl. Sean had a running watch, which he checked as they ran down the gentle slope and over a bridge past a water feature. Tumi saw that the woman had not been joking. There was a sign reading, ‘Beware of crocodiles, hippos and bilharzia’. She had heard of the disease, borne by tiny snails. ‘Keep up with me, Lefty,’ Sean said. The lead runners moved further ahead. Sean was either pacing himself or running slowly for her benefit. Tumi picked up her pace and edged ahead of him. ‘You want to conserve your energy if you can, but your dog will be excited once she gets on a hot pursuit,’ he said from behind her. Tumi sucked lungsful of air. A hot pursuit was when rangers caught a lucky break or poachers were detected by one of the many means of electronic and visual monitoring used in the game reserves. If they were lucky enough to arrive just after a rhino had been killed – or better yet, when the poachers had been spotted before doing their evil business – the dogs would have fresh scent to work with. ‘Shikar will run faster than she ever did in training. They know what’s real and what’s not.’ Tumi was breathing hard now, but Sean, still just behind her, was talking as if he was out for a stroll. The run had started downhill, on the road, but a volunteer directed them onto the grass and up a mild gradient to the perimeter fence. Golfers waved from their buggies and called out encouragement as Sean and Tumi and the other runners raced past. ‘If you let her off-lead to follow a poacher she won’t slow down for you, and nor will the guy you’re chasing. You want to try and keep your dog in sight.’ ‘Yes,’ Tumi gasped. She had heard all of this in basic training. Sean drew abreast of her. ‘Don’t slow down. Your dog won’t and nor will the poacher; it’s a matter of life or death for him. You have to be fit, Tumi. These are hard men we’re up against; they’re young and fearless, and they’ll walk a hundred kilometres to bag a rhino and then another hundred back with the horn.’ ‘I know.’ She couldn’t keep the annoyance from her voice. In a water feature Tumi saw the nostrils and wiggling ears of a hippopotamus. It submerged as they ran by. ‘In the bush you’ll have lions to think about,’ Sean said. ‘If they see you or Shikar running, they’re going to overcome their natural urge to run away from humans and think you’re prey. They might come for you.’ Tumi was finding it harder to breathe. ‘Maybe just a quick break?’ ‘No.’ ‘But –’ ‘Don’t stop, Lefty. A poacher won’t slow down because you’re getting tired. He’ll be fired up. If you’re not there when your dog catches him there’s nothing to stop him drilling Shikar with his AK-47.’ ‘OK. And stop calling me “Lefty”.’ She was getting angry, but she drew on that to keep moving. She would not fail again. A Parkrun sign told her they had done three kilometres. Any relief she felt, however, was soon banished by the steep slope that confronted them. This was the hardest stretch of the course so far, but after the four-kilometre mark she could tell it was mostly downhill to where they had begun. Tumi s