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OUTSIDE CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Loud gunshots woke Simo Cross from a too-short slumber and threw him directly into the path of a killer hangover. He sat up in the tent, automatically reaching for the hunting rifle beside his sleeping bag. He tried to figure out where the gunshots had come from, but had to admit that he might have dreamed them.
Or hallucinated them. He groaned and cursed as he forced himself to his feet. You know better than to drink like that, you stupid git. Especially while you're out in the brush.
Bright sunlight lay in wait outside the tent and the mosquito netting. No one else was up and about. The three other tents comprising the group of vacationing tourists he'd brought out to view the flora and fauna of the Fynbos grasslands for the last two weeks hadn't stirred.
Simon listened intently but the gunshots weren't repeated. You dreamed it. Go back to bed. Get what little sleep you've got coming to you and be glad of it. With all that alcohol in your system, you're going to be sweating your bleeding guts out today.
With a sigh, he turned back to the sleeping bag. Last night Saundra had joined him. Sometimes she did, but she liked to be out of his tent before their clients got out of bed.
Saundra McIntyre was long and lean, five foot ten if she was an inch, but he still towered seven inches above her and made her look small because he was so broad-shouldered. She wore her long auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. Freckles spattered her cheeks and nose.
He held a great affection for her, but it wasn't love. He'd been truthful about that. They'd been conducting safaris in the South African wilds together for the last sixteen months. Long enough to get to know each other really well. And to develop great affections for each other.
Neither one of them wanted to risk continuing the relationship anywhere else. Simon, if he ever went home again, lived in London. Saundra lived in Sidney, Australia. Both of them had family ties.
Simon figured he could leave his family -- his father was it, more or less -- behind easier than Saundra could, but he was unwilling to do that at this point. He preferred an...extended absence from England, he supposed, rather than a more permanent separation. That was the kindest way to put it. Saying it like that didn't feel so grim and so final.
He sighed. You're thinking way too much. Dreaming strange things you've no business dreaming about. Imagining things. Then there's that huge hangover you're going to have to pay for last night's festivities.
That had been a definite mistake. He'd told everyone when they'd left Cape Town that there weren't to be any unnecessary items in their gear. He and Saundra hadn't checked their clients' gear. If they hadn't been getting paid so well, Simon might have pressed the issue and looked to see who carried contraband. But they hadn't.
Jarl Klinker, the photographer from Dusseldorf, had brought in bottles of Russian vodka. He was part of the film research team. The other two claimed to be a director and a writer.
Simon put the hunting rifle down and climbed back into the sleeping bag. It was cool now, but the day would be hot.
"You're awake?" Saundra mumbled.
"Only just." Simon closed his eyes and lay back. Saundra snuggled up against him.
It was true that sometimes he couldn't. Too many unresolved complications, he supposed. "I can sleep."
"Are you sure you want to?" Saundra's voice held a throaty giggle. She kissed his ear.
Simon rolled over to face her. "Well, I still think that sleep is overrated. And no one is up, so -- "
Two quick gunshots cracked the quiet morning again.
Saundra's eyes widened and Simon knew he hadn't imagined the gunfire. They both surged up from the joined sleeping bags. Three more gunshots followed.
Simon dove for his khakis and pulled them on. "How far away, do you think?"
"A half-mile. A mile." Saundra pulled her sleeveless shirt on. Worry pinched her face. "Too close."
Simon nodded. He stepped into his calf-high boots and quickly laced them. "I'll go investigate. You take care of the camp."
"Be careful." Saundra leaned back and pulled on her brush pants. Her stomach muscles corded up. "Take a radio."
Another two shots rang out.
Simon cursed the shooter as he shrugged into a beige t-shirt. He picked up the rifle and one of the small radios he carried for short-range communications. He dropped the radio into the backpack he slid over one shoulder. First rule of the wilderness was to never go anywhere without supplies.
"Take care of 'em." Simon unzipped the tent flaps and pushed through. "I'll be back quick as I can."
Outside in the open area, Simon checked the compass built into his watch. The shots had come from the east, toward the interior and away from the coast.
"Mr. Cross." Rupert Dalton's balding head poked from one of the other tents. "Were those gunshots?"
"I thought you said it was illegal to hunt in this area." Dalton was in his late forties, a wiry man with an awkward way about him.
"It is," Simon assured the man.
Another couple of gunshots echoed over them.
Voices came from the other tents now. That was good. Saundra wouldn't have to wake everyone, and she'd have help waking those who were reluctant.
"Then whoever is doing the shooting must be a -- "
"Stay with Miss McIntyre, Mr. Dalton." Simon took the rifle in both hands and headed out of camp at a jog.
Perspiration quickly covered Simon as the grasslands grew hotter with the rising sun. It peeked through the rose and cream mass of clouds to the east.
His head and stomach protested the strenuous exercise at first, but -- as always -- his body became regulated and he moved effortlessly. Once again, all the harsh conditioning his father had compelled Simon to do came to his aid.
When he'd been younger, he'd enjoyed the runs and the martial arts, especially the sword training. But that had been back when he was a boy and still believed that demons lurked somewhere out in the world just waiting for an opportunity to take it over again.
He didn't believe that anymore. One of his main problems was that he didn't know what to believe. All his life he'd been brought up to fight demons, trained in arcane ways and even taught limited mystical abilities. None of which could be talked about outside the Underground labyrinth where the Templar skulked in the shadows.
Simon had tired of all of it. Two years ago, at twenty-three, he'd left the Templar, his father, and all of London.
Talking about the training he'd received, about the cult-like atmosphere he'd been brought up in, would have done no good. Few left the ranks of the Templar, and only those who knew to keep their mouths shut escaped a date with the loony bin.
Simon pushed those thoughts away and concentrated on running. No hunting was allowed in the grasslands these days. He and Saundra carried hunting rifles only for self-protection and to protect their charges. Occasionally a lioness that had gotten too old to hunt and had been abandoned by her pride developed a taste for blood. But the biggest worry was from poachers.
Only minutes later, something less than two miles from camp, Simon found the shooters.
There were five of them. They were a scruffy lot, from their early twenties to their forties or fifties. All of them had the permanent sunburned look of men who had spent their entire lives in the bush.
They drove two four-wheel-drive Land Rovers strapped with extra tires, jerry cans of fuel, and water. Evidently they'd settled in for the long haul.
Five adult elephants lay on the sun-baked scrubby ground. Blood leaked into the dry dust. Overhead, vultures circled, waiting for the predators to leave.
A baby elephant tugged pitifully at its mother, wrapping its trunk around its mother's head and crying out. One of the hunters raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired. The baby elephant dropped in its tracks.
The killing happened before Simon knew it would. If he'd had a chance to stop it --
You don't know what you'd have done, mate. Simon concentrated on the men, working on seeing through the death. Settling into the shady protection of a camel-thorn acacia tree, he shrugged out of his backpack and watched the poachers.
He took a pair of expensive MechEye digital binoculars from his pack. His father had given them to him on his tenth birthday. And they were far better than those that any other guide he knew carried into the bush.
Depressing the power button, Simon zoomed in on the men as they went about their brutal business. They used handsaws to cut free the elephant tusks. Even with the recent decision to issue licenses to kill off a few hundred head of elephants after it was deemed their populations had grown too large to sustain them, ivory remained valuable on the black market.
The men worked with grim alacrity, tossing their bloody prizes into the backs of the Land Rovers. One of them stood guard, a rifle braced on one hip. His sunglasses reflected the orange coal of his cigarette as he smoked.
Simon captured images of the men and their grisly profit. The binoculars came fully equipped with a surprising array of software.
Okay then, you vicious cutthroats, you're going to pay for what you did here.
During the last sixteen months, Simon had gotten to know the Cape Town police and the gamekeepers that worked in the Fynbos Biome. The area was protected by international law.
Someone will know you.
Simon captured a few more images, then watched in silence as the corpses were stripped of their tusks. The radio vibrated in his pocket.
Leaning back, Simon shook the earpiece out and shoved it into his ear. "Yes."
"I just wanted to make sure you were all right." Saundra sounded worried. "I heard that final shot -- "
"Wasn't me." Simon quickly explained what had gone on.
Saundra cursed when he'd finished. "We can't let them get away with this."
She had very strong feelings about preserving wildlife. As a result, they'd never guided hunters while working together. She knew that Simon did, when the price was right and the interest was there, but they never talked about that.
"I've got pictures of them. They won't get away with it."
The circling vultures dropped from the sky and alighted on the carcasses. Their hooked beaks and cruel talons tore into the elephant flesh.
"What are you going to do?" Saundra asked.
"Wait here. Watch them. Make sure they don't come your way. Get our tourists out of harm's way. I'll catch up to you quick as I can."
Simon took his earpiece out and dropped it back into the radio. He pocketed the radio and pressed the Velcro tab closed on his thigh pocket.
Almost twenty minutes passed. The poachers worked quickly. So did the vultures.
Simon knew the blood scent would draw other predators. It always did. But he didn't expect the Cape buffalo that came up to the scene and stood in the scrubland on the other side of the kill site.
The buffalo was huge and black, with the wide, curving horns of its kind. This one looked near to six feet at the shoulder and weighing more than a ton. The face was massive, all bone and muscle. Most of the gamekeepers Simon knew regarded Cape buffalos as the most dangerous animals in the region. A single lion couldn't bring a Cape buffalo down, and it took a pack of hyenas to do the job.
Since it was alone, Simon guessed that it was a "bachelor." Older bulls were usually cut out of the herds by the younger bulls. People every year died on the horns or under the hooves of Cape buffaloes. They died hard, and most of them didn't die alone.
The poachers noticed the Cape buffalo, too. They pointed at the animal. The older men in the group got more wary. Even a Land Rover wasn't always the best protection out in the open. Cape buffaloes were quite capable of overturning vehicles.
One of the younger men brought his rifle to shoulder.
An older man shouted, "No!" but that happened at the same time the younger man fired.
The first bullet caught the Cape buffalo between the horns, knocking a chunk of hide flying. The buffalo staggered, throwing its head back. As a result, the second and third bullets hit the animal in the chest.
With an angry bellow, the buffalo broke cover and charged the poachers. Simon watched, hoping the buffalo would get them all.
The poachers scattered. The more seasoned among them ran to the elephants' bodies for refuge. The dead elephants were bigger and heavier than the Land Rovers.
Never breaking stride, the Cape buffalo slammed into the side of the lead Land Rover. The impact echoed under the acacia tree where Simon sat. Incredibly, the Land Rover came up on two wheels and rolled over onto its side with a crunch.
Still in motion, the animal sped into the trees and tall shrubs. It disappeared almost immediately. The young poacher got his nerve back and tried two more shots that Simon doubted hit anything.
The older poacher crossed to the younger one, grabbed the rifle barrel, and backhanded the other man to the ground. Then he turned the rifle on the younger man, who threw his hands up in front of him and tried to scoot away on his back. For a moment Simon thought the man was going to kill the younger man.
"That was stupid." The older poacher lowered the rifle, then finally tossed it onto the younger man. "Do something like that again, and I'll kill you." He turned and walked away.
Simon settled back into the shadows. The radio vibrated in his pocket and he took it out. "Still not me, love," he whispered, then explained what had happened. "Are you out of camp?"
"Yes. About two miles west. We're headed for the coast. I think the tour's over. At least for the moment." Saundra didn't sound happy about that. She hated being stuck in Cape Town with nothing to do. She couldn't make money in town.
"There are a few campsites we'll have to visit between here and there," Simon pointed out. "Maybe we'll convince them that making an early retreat isn't what they really want to do." Personally, he didn't care. He enjoyed Cape Town. At least it wasn't London. And he didn't have to hear any talk about demons.
But it meant being around Saundra when she wasn't happy. That wasn't a pleasant prospect.
"I don't want to go back," Saundra said.
"I know. Something will come up." Simon sighed, watched as the poachers gathered by the overturned vehicle and pushed it upright once more. "In the meantime, I'm going to be a little late."
"Got to track down that buffalo bull. Can't let it wander around out here to hurt someone. And it shouldn't be left to linger and die of infection." Simon listened to Saundra breathing over the radio connection. He knew she was frustrated and concerned.
"Go," she said finally. "Just take care of yourself."
In spite of the dire circumstances, Simon grinned. Saundra didn't like to hunt, but he did. And the wounded Cape buffalo was a danger he didn't want to leave out in the wild.
Cautiously, Simon made his way through the brush. He angled around the kill site where the poachers concentrated on the condition of their vehicle, then took up the trail of the wounded animal. A few minutes later, he found the first few bright crimson splatters on leaves where the Cape buffalo had vanished into the scrub.
Judging from the amount of blood, the animal had been severely wounded. Left to its own, it might die anyway. But that might take days. Wounded as it was, it was also dangerous.
Simon slung the hunting rifle over his shoulder and took up the trail.
Copyright © 2007 by Flagship Studios, Inc.