Monday, July 20, 2009

First Chapter - Assassination Safari by Jim Woods


by Jim Woods

Chapter One


“That was a damn fine shot. You’re a cool son-of-a bitch.”

Lucas took no offense. He reckoned that cool son-of-a bitch

was among the highest accolades a professional hunter

could bestow on a safari client. “If I looked good, credit the

cat, but let me tell you, I about crapped in my khakis when

he came for us. Got any more of that rot-gut?”

Danie signaled to Joseph, almost imperceptibly, and

the ancient Matebele quickly brought the two white hunters a

fresh round of the sugar-cane rum mixed with Coca Cola, but

not with too much of the mix that would ease the harsh bite

of the spirits. Cane and Coke, mused Lucas, how long have I

been drinking this? Then aloud, “You hooked me on this


“I remember. I never could get bourbon for you when

you came over. You wouldn’t drink scotch, and everybody on

safari drinks scotch. No, you had to have bourbon, and

nobody here drinks the stuff. We couldn’t even buy it. I

remember that time you brought your own but I had stolen

half a bottle from another hillbilly who had brought his own

supply. I kept it just for you, but it was safe; nobody here

wanted it. You must have been the only two hunters in the

world who drank bourbon.”

“Yeah. He must have been a gentleman, much like

myself. A man of high breeding.”

“Maybe, but even with the bottle you brought and the

bottle I borrowed, we still ran out of booze, and I finally got

you to try cane. Anybody who would drink bourbon would

drink anything, even cane.”

The men quieted their affable banter as if by mutual

agreement. The fire flickered, and Danie idly tested the

embers with the piece of rebar that served as a poker. Lucas

thought about the lion. It was on Danie’s mind too.

They did not see it until it charged. Danie was

impressed with its size though, from the moment they found

the pugmarks in the dust along the edge of the road. He

usually spotted sign as quickly as Napoleon, but was busy

driving and talking to Lucas when the Shona clutched at his

shoulder. “Shumba,” he whispered urgently. Napoleon wasn’t

given to fright, but when he mouthed, “pakarepo,” Danie

switched the Land Cruiser’s engine off and glided to a stop.

“What is it?” Lucas recognized the need to whisper

even though he didn’t know what had alerted the African and

the Afrikaner.

“We have ourselves a lion,” Danie whispered back,

leaning out the doorless right side of the vehicle, “he looks to

be a good one and he’s not very far away.”

Lucas alighted from the left side and automatically

cranked a round into the chamber.

“He’s coming!”

Without conscious thought, Lucas responded to

Danie’s shout and point; he swung the Rigby across the

bonnet of the Land Cruiser and snapped the trigger on a

300-grain Winchester Silvertip. The rifle butt never came to

his shoulder. The boom of the .375 Holland-and-Holland-

Magnum matched the ferocity of the lion’s roar and the big

cat tumbled into the dirt between the edge of the road and

the truck. His enormous head skidded to rest up hard against

the vehicle step on Danie’s side, so that the beast’s neck was

bent unnaturally and his eyes were open and turned

skyward. His bear-trap mouth was wide open too, his growl

switched off in mid-scream.

“Hit him again!” Danie scrambled to retrieve his own

double rifle from the hooks in front of him. Lucas already had

jacked a following round into battery, and put the muzzle

behind the dead lion’s ear.

“Not in the head, you twit! You’ll ruin the skull!”

Lucas felt a bit sheepish. He wasn’t thinking like a

hunter. Danie, always the professional, was well aware of the

hazard—“dead” lions having killed or maimed several of his

fellow professional hunters and a couple of their clients too—

but he could also be concerned for the trophy of the hunt.

“Put one into his heart, from the front, and for God’s

sake don’t hit my truck.” Lucas administered the finisher as

he was bidden, and fell back against the Land Cruiser.

“Why did he charge?”

“I think the sound of your rifle, when you operated the

bolt, set him off. He must have been hunted before, or

maybe we just disturbed him because he had a female in the

bush. Whatever, he sure was pissed. Napoleon said he was

nearby, but I didn’t think he was so close. Thanks for the

shot. It’s a hell of a lot of paperwork when somebody,

especially a client, gets mauled.”

“Not a problem,” giggled Lucas, his legs rubbery,

“Don’t want to put you out with all that administrative work.”

After they all caught their breath and, in turn, each

had reconstructed and embellished the incident, the three of

them managed to haul the heavy, awkward, limp lion up

onto the lowered tailgate. The drive to camp was quiet; the

hunters lost in their own thoughts. Danie worried with his

pipe that refused to stay lit. Lucas rubbed at imaginary spots

on the blue of his rifle barrel. Napoleon sat nonchalantly atop

the carcass. The lump of lion didn’t look much the part of

King. They couldn’t talk more about it now as they would

later around the fire. The only noise marring the drive was

the whining of the engine and buzzing of the flies.

The camp staff turned out to welcome the hunters

home, somehow knowing before they drove in that a lion had

been taken, and that Lucas was the hero. The celebration

lasted for nearly an hour before Danie threatened them all

with kicks on their butts if dinner wasn’t served

chiriporipocho! He knew it wouldn’t be immediately as

ordered, and the boys would hang around through the night

using the lion kill as an excuse to party.

He just may be the man we’ve been looking for, Danie

considered. “Ready for another?” as he tipped his glass

toward the Texan.

“No thanks. I think I’ll shower before dinner.”

Following the meal of tasty warthog in a mystery

concoction that would make the best sauce chef in New York

envious, Lucas and Danie enjoyed the sundowner course

around the fading embers in the fire pit. This was the best

time of the hunt—the hours after the stench of excitement

had been washed away, the hunters now freshly clad in

khakis washed in the stream while they were away, and

perfectly pressed with the hinged top, heavy iron filled with

red-hot coals from this fire that had not been permitted to

wane since morning tea.

In spite of the white hunters knowing the country as

well as the blacks, the blacks insisted on the perpetual

firelight to guide the wanderers home. Only when the

hunters and all the camp staff were bedded was the fire

permitted to fade, and even then it wasn’t entirely dead.

Joseph, the camp headman, would sort through the ashes

well before dawn, bare-handedly dusting away the fine ash

to uncover a blushing ember, the seed of a new living fire.

But now the black staff members hung in the shadows, only

to appear silently at the boundaries of this, the camp’s social

center, replenishing the ritual drinks, seemingly giving the

white men total privacy. The white men knew though, that

any and all things discussed between them that evening

would be repeated and analyzed in native-tongue whispers

all night and the following day.

“Damn. You Great-White-Hunters have the world by

the tail,” sighed Lucas. “Only two things I ever wanted to do

for a living—play third base for the Astros and be a

professional hunter in Africa…I couldn’t make it in baseball

but I could sure handle this.”

“I know you could, and Mac knows you could, but it’s

highly unlikely you’ll ever get a license in South Africa or in

this country, for that matter. Mugabe’s bunch isn’t handing

out any P-H tickets to whites not born here in Zimbabwe and

there’s a long line ahead of you at home. Every white African

applying for a professional hunter license in South Africa has

to wait until the black quota is filled—that’s the new rule.

Sure, those of us who had tickets before the election get to

keep them, but Hell, man, we have to take on a black

partner or our own license gets revoked. MacGregor put up

your name but it didn’t do any good…Joseph!” Another brace

of cane and Cokes appeared instantly; if not by the magic it

seemed then by the old servant’s educated anticipation of his

employer’s needs.

“Yeah, Mac’s okay. I know.” Lucas knew MacGregor

was the President of PHASA, the Professional Hunters

Association of South Africa. It wasn’t an official government

agency but no one was approved for a government-issued

professional hunter license unless they were put forward by


Lately, the Wildlife Ministry had taken to giving

PHASA lists of candidates for professional hunter licenses,

coercing the organization to give its backing to the names on

the list, all of them black South Africans. A few of the

candidates were known to be good hunters, qualified for

license, but many of them were not. In spite of Ministry

pressures, PHASA withheld approval of the unqualified

applicants and the issuance of new licenses slowed to a

trickle. Only when the specified number of accumulated

licenses had been issued to blacks could one new white

hunter be pushed into the queue. Lucas had completed all

the courses, passed all the tests, and had the blessing of the

officers of PHASA. Twice MacGregor had submitted Lucas

Mellor’s name, and twice it had been rejected by the

Ministry. MacGregor learned he must submit only names of

South Africans, or perhaps those from other southern African

countries, if he was to add any new white professional

hunters to the ranks.

“Guess I’ll have to give up that dream too,” Lucas

continued. “I can’t even hire on with an outfit just as a

helper, not that I could live on what you guys pay your camp


“Suppose I told you there was a job for you in South

Africa, one that would support you well and keep you hunting

practically the year ’round? What would you say then?”

“I’d say, who do I have to kill?”

“That’s…the right answer.”

Lucas stared at Danie Schwardt quizzically. “Would

you care to explain?” Lucas could almost see the joviality

drain from Danie’s face, replaced by a malevolence that the

Afrikaner had never displayed. Even when he commanded

the camp staff with a thrust from his foot or a swat from his

well-muscled arm, it was always with a grin or an

affectionate remark that took the sting out of the abuse.

Danie motioned with a backward slap in the general direction

of the half dozen black men it took to serve the camp, and

obediently all of them faded even further into the night. He

then scooted his chair nearer to Lucas’ and hunched forward

to get even closer.

“What I’m going to tell you and the proposition I’m

going to put to you, is between you, me and the fire. You

may think I have put myself in jeopardy by talking with you,

but I assure you, it is you who will be in danger just by

having knowledge of what we discuss. Do you want me to go


Lucas didn’t speak but adopted his own grim

demeanor and leaned toward Danie, who took his silence as

agreement to continue. “I am part of an organization…”

Lucas grunted acknowledgement and thought to

himself that the Afrikaners were well known for their secret


“…that works for the betterment of South Africa. Our

mission is to rid the country of those who are determined to

destroy our way of life.”

“You mean kill.”


“Just who are these people? How do you know them?”

“They are known by their actions and their words.

They are and can be anyone—white, black, politicians,

teachers, clergy, businessmen, labor…”

“Who determines that these people are wrong for the

country? Who decides they must be killed?”

“Eliminated. We do.”

“Okay, who is we?”

“We are The Vengeurs!”

“The Vengeurs?”

“Ya. The Vengeurs—The Avengers, and you must

become one of us. You will be our sword.”

In choreographed movement, the hunters settled back

in their canvas-backed chairs, hugged both arms to their

chests and sipped thoughtfully from their tumblers of the

lightly diluted, fiery cane liquor. “You said proposition but it

sounds like an ultimatum,” Lucas broke the silence. “Are you

giving me any options?”

“Of course you have options.” The unyielding edge on

Danie’s voice was not lost on Lucas. “If you choose to not

accept my offer, we’ll get on with the safari so you can get

back to the States.”

“Get on board or get out of town—is that the choice


“I’d say it’s join the team or find a seat very high up in

the stadium. As you can well appreciate, the emotion

surrounding an important contest is not always confined to

the playing field. Spectators sometimes get injured.”

“All right. That’s plain enough. I show up back here for

another safari and my return flight gets canceled. Your

threats are not really necessary though. I’m listening, but

why me?”

“I’ve seen you shoot. You know how to handle a gun

and I’ve seen you under pressure. You don’t panic. Most of

all, though, I see that you could be a South African. Your

passion for the country almost matches my own.”

“Okay. All that may be true enough, but I don’t see

that I’m that special. A lot of Americans can shoot, handle

stress, and love South Africa. I repeat…why me?”

“How many safari trips have you made to South

Africa? Fifteen? Twenty?” Lucas threw up both hands to

agree with the estimate and nodded to acknowledge that the

exact number was unimportant. Danie went on, “You’re on

record with the authorities with your guns. They have

checked you in with them all these times. The customs

inspectors recognize you. The police know that you travel all

over the country for several weeks at a time after your

safaris, with your guns in the boot of your hired car. You’re a

good tourist—you hunt, you spend lots of dollars, you go

home to save up to come back again. And that’s your cover.”

“Go on. This gets interesting.”

“We will pick your target. You will come to the country

weeks in advance of the hit—go on safari; tour the game

parks as you always do. We’ll set it up. You’ll pay nothing for

the safaris and we’ll provide the funds for you to play the

well-off tourist. You fulfill the contract at a time we tell you.

This gives us the opportunity to arrange our attendance at

the policeman’s ball or whatever; be alibied by some high

visibility scheme.”

“You started off talking about you, now it’s we. How

many of them know about me?”

“My associates know I have been considering

someone, but not you by name. We don’t use identities

much, except code names. To the rest, you may be German

or Australian or French. Well perhaps not French, but a

foreigner anyway. You’ll find that we are mutually protective.

We must be.”

“Let’s keep it so. This is the way it will be. When you

want me to come, place an ad in The Times of London.”

“You get The Times in Houston? I get the export issue

myself but it doesn’t include the classifieds. That section is

too bulky and heavy for the post.”

“No, I don’t subscribe, but I can get the Sunday issue

at a newsstand at home. They’re just a few days late. Put in

a display ad, not a classified, something general about

tourism. Don’t include any contact information so you don’t

get calls from tourists—just propaganda about the beauties

of South Africa. I’ll check the paper each week and if the ad

is there, I’ll call you.”

“Ya. I can place such an advert. The Times has four

satellite advertising offices and news bureaus nearby. It

would be better if you write, though. We seldom are in a

hurry. We won’t plan a project unless we have advance

information about the subject’s itinerary. As I say, those of

us here who could be suspects because of our known political

leanings require time to establish witnesses as to our

whereabouts. Telephone calls could be monitored and voiceprinted

but usually letters—especially letters from outside

the country—are not opened.”

“How about e-mail?”

“We probably could have an e-mail code but anything

that goes out over the phone lines could be monitored, and

that includes fax too. When you see the advert in The Times,

write to me to discuss a safari. Just tell me when you’ll arrive

at Johannesburg International Airport and someone, not

always me, will meet you. If it is someone other than me, it

will not be anyone who knows anything except he is to escort

a pampered client to his hotel. Then we will get together

face-to-face. If there is nothing on paper, then there is no

incriminating trail.”

“You’ll have to give me time to look over the situation

after I get here. I’m not anxious to be caught either.”

“Of course. The campaign will be well thought out

before you make a move. We want results but as I say, we

seldom are in a hurry. Mistakes come with poor planning.”

“I need a rifle.”

“You’re good with the one you have. What more do

you need?”

“Recovered bullets can be analyzed and connected to

the gun that fired them, then to the gun owner. I don’t relish

having my hunting rifle tied to a killing like what we’re

speaking of. No, I have in mind a special project.”

“I can put you in contact with a gunsmith in Vryheid

who can accommodate you—some sort of take-down rifle or

special optical sights?”

“No. Neither of those, just special. If you don’t know

then you can’t put either of us under scrutiny. I’ll get it done

back in the States.”

“I appreciate your caution, but I can still help you. We

have a man in Atlanta who is quite clever.”

“A gunsmith?”

“No, a master machinist, but he has built guns.”

“I’ll talk to him. Set it up for me and I’ll see him as

soon as I fly back.”

“Cutting your trip short?”

“After that lion, not many critters excite me now, at

least not any that walk on all fours. I’ll call you from home to

make arrangements for the skin to be shipped. That will be

the signal I’m ready for the next level.”

“A friendly warning, Lucas. Don’t think your being in

the United States puts you out of our reach. The machinist in

Atlanta is not our only operative outside South Africa. Our

enemies travel a good bit, drumming up support and

collecting funds from uneducated but generous do-gooders in

America and Europe. Once in a while the opportunity comes

up to dispose of them on their travels. When such an

occasion does arise we can call on an operative locally. The

United States is especially open to that sort of solution; you

people can travel throughout the country so easily. If one of

our subjects was to be scheduled to appear anywhere in the

eastern U.S., for instance, our man in Atlanta is just a few

hours away. We have people in Boise, St. Louis and Las

Vegas, just to note a few. So don’t even consider stepping

out of line. Our people are quite unforgiving of treachery.”

“Hey! I’m on your side, remember?”

“I know. And I like you, Lucas. That’s why I am giving

you this friendly warning. Do not talk to anyone about The

Vengeurs or our mission. And once in, you’re in for keeps.

You remember that! Now, may I drive you to the airport?”

“Well, back to the Holiday Inn at the airport. I left

some bags in storage there, and I have to arrange a new

flight. When is the next SAA departure to New York?”

“Uh, let’s see…not until Thursday, then another on

Friday. By the time we get back to Johannesburg, you might

better plan on Friday.”

“Friday it is. Call your man in Atlanta to expect me

Saturday evening. If I can make the connection from

Kennedy, I’ll stop over and see him before heading on home.

Give me his name and number and if I can’t get a flight to

Atlanta, I’ll call him from New York to set up a meeting.”

“Patience, Lucas. If your lion had stalked instead of

blindly charging, one or both of us might not be here to have

this talk. As I’ve said, telephones are not used here unless

absolutely necessary. I will write to our associate in Atlanta.

You can contact him in two weeks. Your meeting can be

arranged on your telephone system, which we know to be

more private than our own. When you are ready to return, it

will be as you suggested. Contact me to ship your lion and

I’ll know you are ready for assignment. That gives me an

idea. What would you think of your code name being Leo?”

“I think I like that—Lucas to Leo—Leo the hunter. Yes.

I like that.”

“Very well, Leo. When I speak of you, or to you in

whatever coded method we devise, it will be as Leo. Of

course, when you correspond with me for safaris as you have

done in the past, use your real name. When you hunt with

the outfits we organize for you, you must use your real name

too. Lucas must not disappear from government records only

to be replaced by Leo.”

“Done!” Once again the two hunters shook hands over

a lion.

1 comment:

  1. The excerpt is flawless and intriguing. Thank you for sharing.