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Flynn Patrick O’Flynn was an ivory poacher by profession, and modestly he admitted that he was the best on the east coast of Africa.
Rachid El Keb was an exporter of precious stones, of women for the harems and great houses of Arabia and India, and of illicit ivory. This he admitted only to his trusted clients; to the rest he was a rich-and respectable owner of coastal shipping.
In an afternoon during the monsoon of 1912, drawn together by their mutual interest in pachyderms, Flynn and Rachid sat in the back room of El Keb’s shop in the Arab quarter of Zanzibar, and drank tea from tiny brass thimbles. The hot tea made Flynn O’Flynn perspire even more than usual. It was so humid hot in the room that the flies sat in languid stupor upon the low ceiling.
‘Listen, Kebby, you lend me just one of those stinking little ships of yours and I’ll fill her so high with tusks, she’ll damn nigh sink.’
‘Ah!’ replied El Keb carefully, and went on waving the palm-leaf fan in his own face – a face that resembled that of a suspicious parrot with a straggly, goatee beard.
‘Have I ever let you down yet?’ Flynn demanded aggressively, and a drop of sweat fell from the tip of his nose onto his already damp shirt.
‘Ah!’ El Keb repeated.
‘This scheme has a flair. It has the touch of greatness to it. This scheme …’ Flynn paused to find a suitable adjective, ‘ … this scheme is Napoleonic. It is Caesarian!’
‘Ah!’ El Keb said again, and refilled his tea cup. Lifting it delicately between thumb and forefinger, he sipped before speaking. ‘It is necessary only that I should risk the total destruction of a sixty-foot dhow worth …’ prudently he inflated the figure, ‘ … two thousand English pounds?’
‘Against an almost certain recovery of twenty thousand,’ Flynn cut in quickly, and El Keb smiled a little, almost dreamily.
‘You’d put the profits so high?’ he asked.
That’s the lowest figure. Good God, Kebby! There hasn’t been a shot fired in the Ruffiji basin for twenty years. You know damn well it’s the Kaiser’s private hunting reserve. The Jumbo are so thick in there I could round them up and drive them in like sheep.’ Involuntarily Flynn’s right forefinger crooked and twitched as though it were already curled around a trigger.
‘Madness,’ whispered El Keb, with the gold gloat softening the shape of his lips. ‘You’d sail into the Ruffiji river from the sea, hoist the Union Jack on one of the islands in the delta and fill the dhow with German ivory. Madness.’
‘The Germans have formally annexed none of those islands. I’d be in and out again before Berlin had sent their first cable to London. With ten of my gun-boys hunting, we’d fill the dhow in two weeks.’
‘The Germans would have a gunboat there in a week. They’ve got the Blücher lying at Dar es Salaam under steam, heavy cruiser with nine-inch guns.’
‘We’d be under protection of the British flag. They couldn’t dare touch us – not on the high seas – not with things the way they are now between England and Germany.’
‘Mr O’Flynn, I was led to believe you were a citizen of the United States of America.’
‘You damn right I am.’ Flynn sat up a little straighter, a little more proudly.
‘You’d need a British captain for the dhow,’ El Keb mused, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
‘Jesus, Kebby, you didn’t think I was fool enough to sail that cow in myself?’ Flynn looked pained. ‘I’ll find someone else to do that, and to sail her out again through the Imperial German navy. Me, I’m going to walk in from my base camp in Portuguese Mozambique and go out the same way.’
‘Forgive me.’ El Keb smiled again. ‘I underestimated you.’ He stood up quickly. The splendour of the great jewelled dagger at his waist was somewhat spoiled by the unwashed white of his ankle-length robe. ‘Mr O’Flynn, I think I have just the man to captain your dhow for you. But first it is necessary to alter his financial circumstances so that he might be willing to accept employment.’
Copyright © Wilbur Smith 1968.