By J. R. Nova
By J. R. Nova
A Cessna landed on a barren strip of desert in the heart of Africa, a semi-natural runway that had been modified several times in the last fifty years. It was just smooth enough to take the Cessna. In the distance, for as far as the pilot and passenger could see, were grasslands. They were windswept, and deceivingly luscious. There was no water out there, unless one had a shovel and the patience to dig deep. The rains had come a week before, and the soil had already dried and cracked.
At the end of the runway was a jeep, a single man standing beside it.
The pilot turned the engine off and both he and the passenger got out. The pilot took his canteen and sat under the wing’s shade, and the passenger went to the end of the runway, to meet the man waiting for him.
“Hello. I’m Burk Guilders,” the passenger said. They shook hands.
“Hello, Mr. Guilders. I wasn’t expecting someone so—”
“Tall. Yes. It was a tight fit in that little plane but I made it.”
Burk looked his partner over. Out here he might as well be his doctor and his priest as well as his guide. “Pike Kennedy, is it? I’m surprised you drove here. Where did you come from?”
“A village about forty miles southeast. I’ve got plenty of gas and the jeep is well maintained.” He pointed to three full cans in the back of the jeep. They were gray and semi-transparent. Burk could tell two were full and the third was nearly empty.
“You made it hard on me to hire you.” Burk drew a pack of narrow cigars from his front pocket and offered one to Pike. The poacher refused.
“Times are changing, Mr. Guilders. It’s as dangerous for poachers these days as it is for the animals they hunt. Men are dying out here, and no one knows why. It drives the prices up.”
“I don’t intend to die today,” Burk said. “I do intend to kill something.”
“Then you’re in luck,” Pike said, taking on cheerful tone. “Today the game isn’t too far. Herds moves through here during and just after the rainy season—if there is a rainy season. We don’t have far to go. If we don’t find elephants we’ll at least find lions chasing the wildebeest. There’s a herd, you can see their dust trail in the distance there.” He pointed a fat finger across the grassland, then waived Burk to the jeep. “Will your pilot be fine? I don’t recognize him. I hope he’s familiar with the land.”
Burk answered quickly, perhaps too quickly. “He’s a good friend of mine, a man I trust a great deal, but he doesn’t hunt. He won’t come out into the sun with us.”
Pike seemed to nod but in the bright light it was hard to see the subtle movement. They drove quickly away and soon the airport was out of sight. Burk squinted.
“It’s going to be a quick ride out, right?” he asked.
“Of course, Mr. Guilders.”
“A man of my prestige, well, if I were caught out here—arrested, let’s say—it wouldn’t look good.”
“A politician, Mr. Guilders?”
“No, nothing so lofty. A businessman. But bad press would hurt business.” He had to raise his voice to be heard and he suddenly felt self-conscious. Did he sound like he was telling the truth?
Pike looked at him. There was no road, and Pike’s navigation was guesswork. He relied on intuition. He narrowly missed gashes in the Earth that could easily catch a wheel and flip the jeep, or throw them from the vehicle. They wore no seat belts, and held on to the role cage with one hand.
Pike shifted into the next gear and floored the accelerator. They drove for fifteen minutes, then Pike slowed to a stop and stood on his seat, measuring the distant landscape with his binoculars. “There they are,” he said, handing the binoculars to Burk. Burk took them and, standing up, gazed across the hot grass. He saw two herds, one of wildebeest, and one of elephants, and guessed they were still a five-minute drive away. The elephants’ gray skins shined in the sun, where their bodies were not covered in thick layers of dried mud.
“Is there a water hole near here?” Burk asked. “I don’t see any lions.”
“There’s a river perhaps a hundred miles from here. The herd animals will get water from the grass and that will sustain them until they reach the river. The lions are hiding. They wait for their opportunity. Incredibly patient animals.”
Pike sat down and took the binoculars from Burk. He put the jeep in drive and drove slowly, carefully over jutting rocks and small, rain-washed gullies.
Burk would never tell Pike Kennedy what his business was. That he was part of an organization that, like Pike, hunted for a living. That many men had come before him, each looking for a poacher to guide them to the largest kill of their lives. Not to hunt for lions and elephants, but for men.
The organization Burk belonged to hunted throughout the world. In Indochina, in the Himalayas, in India, in South American rainforests. And Africa. No bodies were left behind, so there were few traces of their crimes. The organization created mystery, and chaos.
Yet the organization had taken special precautions to keep news of the murders from reaching newspapers and broadcast channels. There could be no chance that public opinion could swing against them. People hated the extinction of Earth’s creatures, but would not condone the slaying of humans. They didn’t understand that violence was the only way to stop violent men. Without public outcry against them, the organization could work out of sight of local and international law enforcement.
For Burk, it had taken luck to get this far. It was more than just organizing, finding a pilot and squirming through customs. Everything had to go right. The poacher Burk found couldn’t ask too many questions or expect too many specific answers, nor could he investigate too deeply into the answers readily given. An inquisitive mind could spoil the illusion.
Much had changed since the organization began its spree. Most of the disappearances appeared to be competition killings, at first. Animals had grown scarce and there were too many poachers in the world. Poachers turned on each other, and the industry fell apart, rifting like the continent of Africa itself. Some poachers had quit and others grew paranoid and clumsy and were caught by the dragnet of law enforcement. Most of those who stayed were too suspicious to trust anyone. Their work suffered.
Slowly the species Burk hoped to save rebounded. But it was harder for the organization now than it ever was before. Victims were growing scarce.
So it was difficult for Burk to make this contact with Pike Kennedy. It took Burk six weeks of careful negotiations. It cost Burk a million and a half dollars—deposited in Pike’s Swiss account—to finally convince the poacher that Burk was nothing more than a rich, spoiled billionaire. It had taken even more effort to convince Pike to come alone. Burk had used a fear of being caught and exposed, damaging his business back in the States, for that.
There was still a great risk for Pike Kennedy, but with a million dollars in the bank and another two million promised to him after the hunt, just so a rich jet setter could stroke his ego, Pike finally relented to all of Burk’s terms.
But even now Pike was not comfortable. He was not looking at the ground he drove across, but around—searching for someone or something trailing behind him or driving to meet him, even out in the middle of nowhere, a place few could ever get to. Never did he suspect that his greatest fear was the man sitting at his side.
“We walk from here.”
“Are you sure?” Burk asked. He took his gun and his pack from the back of the jeep, as if his question had been simple chitchat. His pack smelled faintly of gasoline. He wondered if the elephants could smell the scent of man rising on the hot air, or if they could only smell the heat.
“We’ll spook them if we get any closer with the jeep. They may have already heard us. We’re only eighty yards away.”
“More like one hundred yards,” Burk said. He walked slowly, testing Pike, trying to walk his flank and slowing down to see if Pike would go before him. Pike didn’t fall for it. He trusted no one now, not even his customer. Pike slowed to Burk’s pace. Ahead, the lions vanished into the tall grass, leaving just the elephants for the two hunters.
“Have you ever been charged by one of these magnificent beasts?” Burk whispered.
“How did you survive it?”
“It went after and killed a good friend of mine instead. A man from the village. But that was a long time ago and I was still a kid for all I knew about this business.”
“Out here, can anyone be ignorant?”
“Of course, and they die.”
Burk caught Pike’s eye and the two men stood staring at each other as the elephants shifted away from them, and Burk wondered if he had done something to put tip Pike off, or if the man was naturally guarded.
“Do you see that one there on the left?”
“Yes,” Burk said. He knelt down. He knew Pike was telling him that was the one to take. It was a great big beast, but old. Its ivory was not as pristine as it should have been—to really get a lot on the market—but still it was an incredible animal. Burk checked the chamber. It was empty, of course, and he loaded the gun and took the safety off.
“You can shoot it from here or do you need to get closer?”
“I’m not an amateur, Mr. Kennedy. Where I come from the bucks don’t let you get this close.”
“We’re not in America, Mr. Guilders. It will probably charge at us if you hit it. Get any closer than this and we may both die.”
Burk pivoted to his left and aimed his fifty caliber rifle at Pike. Pike shifted, backing up quickly and realizing his mistake. Burk realized it as well. If Pike had charged forward he could have wrested the gun from Burk’s hands, but now that moment was over. Pike had, in his surprise, backed into his own end.
“So this is how it happens?” Pike asked. His voice was calm, but his face exposed his fear. “I never thought it would be this way.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Burk said. Just say you’ll quit forever. Don’t try to stop me. Don’t give me a reason to shoot you.
Pike raised his eyebrows. He held his hands away from his body, his gun still strapped to his shoulder. He looked, knees slightly bent, as if he were guarding another player on a basketball court. He was aware of the heat, and aware of his heart racing in his chest.
Burk’s heart raced as well. He was finally here. He had his opportunity to step into the shoes of the men who had gone before him. They had each done this. They had each stood before their enemy. They had each pulled the trigger. Each man in the organization that Burk had come to call friend. He had listened to their stories of adventure and triumph. Until now cash had been his only contribution. He had only rolled money into their work, supporting their murders.
But now that Burk had a real man in his sights, he wasn’t sure he could pull the trigger. Pike was not someone’s story. He had spoken. He sweat from the heat. He showed emotion and intelligence. He was real!
“You’ll let me go?” Pike asked.
Burk hesitated. Pike straightened, standing tall. He had gotten hold of himself.
Pull the trigger, damn it!
Pike stood five feet from Burk, and Burk had a big, heavy rifle pointed at Pike’s head. Pike thought it was a mistake. He thought Burk could never lower the gun quickly enough to shoot him if he stooped down and charged forward. Pike could take him, he knew he could.
If Burk had been a shorter man, it may have been to Pike’s advantage, but Burk was already looking down at Pike. The gun’s size and weight wasn’t a disadvantage to a man of his size.
In the heat and dust the elephants seemed to watch. They had not moved from where they fed on grass, clipping the savanna as if it were a lawn. Shadow fell over them as a cloud moved across the sun.
Both men reacted at once. Neither was aware of the others’ intentions, but acted on his own instinct. Pike knelt and Burk pulled the trigger. The bullet skimmed off the top of the poacher’s skull. Blood exploded from shattered fragments of bone—but Pike didn’t slow down. He pushed forward. He forced his way through the pain.
Pike took his rifle from his shoulder. He had loaded it before leaving the village and had never put the safety on. It was ready to shoot. Ready to kill. It was smaller and lighter than Burk’s gun, every bit as deadly.
Pike took aim but Burk squeezed his trigger first. There was another explosive report. The bullet tore through Pike’s stomach. The poacher slumped to the ground.
I put myself in this situation, Burk thought. But I never made him go for me. I was giving him every chance to talk me out of killing him.
Burk wiped sweat from his brow. He checked Pike’s body to make sure he was dead and to rummage through his pockets. He walked back to the jeep with his pack on his shoulder and his gun at his side. He threw the gun into the back of the jeep, not worrying about unloading it or putting the safety on. The gun clattered against the metal bucket. He started the jeep and drove it to Pike’s limp body. He hauled him into the passenger seat and turned the vehicle toward the airstrip, stopping suddenly to look behind him.
The wildebeest herd had moved well into the distance but the elephants grazed upon the grass, having moved fearlessly near to Pike’s body. The old elephant with the worthless tusks was the closest. Burk twisted around to see if he could catch sight of one or two of the lions, but they were well hidden in the brush and tall grass.
A little spooked, hoping the lions weren’t stalking him, Burk put the jeep into drive and headed cautiously back toward the plane. It took him two hours to navigate his way over the unfamiliar terrain. The pilot had started the plane the moment he saw the jeep in the horizon, its metal body and glass windshield sparkling in the sunlight.
Burk drove up to the plane and called to the pilot over the sound of the idling engine. All they had to do was load the body—proof of Burk’s success—and fly away.
“We’ll flip the jeep and make it look like an accident,” the pilot said, his voice raised. “If anyone finds it they’ll assume he was was injured and got lost on his way back to the village.”
“I should have popped him off before we ever went out there,” Burk said. “I wasted too much time.”
“Did you see them?”
“The lions,” the pilot said.
“One. He was magnificent.” Burk felt like he was screaming, and still the sound of the engine seemed to drown his voice.
“Then it was worth it,” the pilot said.
They dumped the jeep by the brush at the end of the runway and within ten minutes Burk was looking down from the window, searching the savannas from the sky. Below he could make out the silhouettes of another heard of wildebeests traveling west between the rivers. He could see no lions, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.