Dead of Night by Michael Stanley is published by Orenda Books and is available now. This excerpt is published by permission.
Michael Davidson wiped the sweat off his face, irritated that his hand was unsteady. He’d been following the white pickup for almost two hours. He was actually surprised that he hadn’t lost it somewhere along the way, because he’d had to keep a long way back as there was very little traffic.
But the roads were straight with few major intersections – that had helped. Eventually, near a small town called Giyani, the pickup had turned onto a dirt road. After that he’d been able to drop even further back and just follow the dust train. Eventually the dust had stopped at the gate of a smallholding.
He drove slowly past at the entrance. The pickup was nowhere in sight and had probably been driven round the back of the ramshackle house. The entrance was nothing more than a double metal farm gate that you pulled closed by hand, with a cattle grid below it. It was secured with a padlock, but it wasn’t much of a barrier.
He was very tempted to call it a day – he’d already connected most of the links in the rhino-horn smuggling chain. But there was still the crucial connection to establish – the one between the local traffickers and the people who would smuggle the horn out of the country to Mozambique. He had to document that. And if his tip-off was correct, the transfer would happen today. This would be his one and only chance. And if he succeeded, the payoff would be big – both in money and reputation. But these were dangerous men, and they had a lot to lose.
He drove on until he found a driveway where he could pull off and be sure his vehicle wouldn’t be seen from the road. Then he grabbed his camera and walked back to the padlocked gate. Perhaps he could just hide near it and photograph who came and went.
But once he reached the gate, the lure of a scoop was too strong to resist. If he merely photographed a vehicle leaving the farm, what would that prove? The chain would not be joined. And anyway, they wouldn’t be expecting anything – he was sure they hadn’t noticed him following them. So, it wouldn’t be such a huge risk. He noted the thick bush on the farm. He could hide there if he had to.
He wet his lips and carefully scanned his surroundings. Nothing.
Quickly, he clambered over the gate, dropped to the ground and moved off the driveway into the veld. A couple of cattle on the next property raised their heads and looked at him, but there was no other response. He started to think about ways he could get close to the house. The problem was that the area immediately around it had been cleared. Some optimist had planted scraggy grass, but it had mostly lost the battle with the hard, dry ground. He couldn’t see anywhere near the house where he could hide safely.
Then he heard a vehicle approaching.
Davidson dropped to the ground behind a low bush, thankful for at least a little cover. He felt the familiar effects of an adrenaline surge. He’d done a stint covering the war in Afghanistan and, while he hadn’t enjoyed the
danger, there’d been a peculiar exhilaration in knowing that every step you took might be your last. But there had also been fear. And that was what he felt now.
A man came down the driveway and opened the gate for the vehicle that had just arrived. It headed up to the house, and he heard the man following it. Then the footsteps stopped.
Michael pressed his body into the ground, annoyed with himself for not moving further into the bush. The footsteps started again.
Were they coming closer?
There was a snap of a twig.
He’s not on the road anymore. Should I make a run for it? But the man was close and almost certainly armed. Davidson’s heart hammered. He lay dead still, feeling the stones and grit through his jeans, and realised that he’d picked up some thorns when he hit the ground. The back of his neck itched with sweat, and something many-legged was crawling on his arm. He forced himself to ignore it.
The man had stopped. What was he doing? Then he heard the sound of a urine stream hitting the dust. The only
muscles he moved were those on his face as he smiled involuntarily. At least he was out of range. He heard a zip being pulled up, and the footsteps resumed up the driveway. He breathed a sigh of relief. Shortly after, he heard voices and vehicle doors slam, but then it was all quiet again. They’d all gone into the house.
He lifted his head and looked around cautiously, but there was no sign of either vehicle. He decided the main entrance to the building must be on the other side. He scrambled to his feet and rapidly worked his way further into the bush and round the house, trying to keep low and out of sight of any of the windows. After a few minutes, he could see the door with the pickup and the new vehicle parked in front of it. The problem was that from where he was, he wouldn’t be able to see what was happening or take pictures, and if he tried to get much closer, he’d be exposed. He needed elevation.
He spotted a large sausage tree between him and the vehicles. He’d have preferred to be closer, but then further away was safer. The tree would have to do. Hoping that the men were all engaged inside with their transaction
and that they hadn’t left a lookout, he worked his way forwards, keeping the tree between him and the house. There were no sounds except those of the bush – the trill of insects, the harsh cackles of green wood-hoopoes. Reaching the tree, he stood up and realised he’d lucked out. From here he actually had a good view, and from up the tree he’d be able to see the front entrance and the vehicles clearly. He’d just have to climb high enough to be hidden by the large leaves and huge sausage-shaped fruits.
There was a convenient branch not too high off the ground, but it was dead. He’d have to use it to lever himself up, and if it broke it would attract attention. He clenched his teeth and reached up for it, trying to grab smaller side branches at the same time to distribute his weight. He could feel that the dead branch was brittle, felt it protest … felt it crack. But it held long enough for him to lift himself into the canopy. His haste caused some rustling, and the dead branch had made some noise. He held his breath, his heart racing again. There were still only the bush sounds.
He checked his camera and blew some dust particles off the lens. Then he got some pictures of the new vehicle – a beaten-up panel van – including its number plate, which indicated that it was from Mozambique. Just as he suspected. On the side was painted ‘Maputo Electrical’ with a lightning logo.
Then he waited.
It took a while, but at last two men – Asian by the look of them – emerged from the house, each with a holdall, obviously heavy. One of the white men he’d been following came out after them. Where was the other man? Was he still in the house?
Michael slowly lifted his camera and rested the lens on a branch. It wasn’t long before his patience was rewarded in a way he couldn’t have dared hope. To open the back door of the van, one of the men had to drop his holdall – and it wasn’t fastened. For a few seconds, Davidson could see into the bag quite clearly through his zoom lens.
It was stuffed with rhino horns.
The man picked up the bag and tossed it into the back of the van, and his partner did the same. They weren’t even bothering to hide them.
As he zoomed out to get a wider shot, the missing second white man walked into the viewfinder. He was at the side of the house. Michael froze, his heart thumping. The man was scanning with a pair of binoculars.
In a few moments, he would be focused on the sausage tree.