Blood Moon by Kara Benson

Kara Benson
By Kara Benson April 8, 2014 09:39

Blood Moon by Kara Benson

Summary:

Tess Steenblock returns to Kenya to work for a high-end tour operator and accompany clients on safaris throughout Kenya. Underneath the glossy brochures and luxury lodges lies another world. Her work as a tour guide and photographer brings her face to face with the brutality of poaching, the heat and the dust, the death of animals and people. Tess decides to fight back and is determined to throw a spanner into the well greased machine of international poaching. Her path crosses with high ranking politicians and poor, ragged poachers. She faces greed for power and corruption that stop at nothing. The trail leads her to Dubai where she uncovers the connections they use to smuggle ivory and rhino horn out of Kenya into Dubai.

The rape of a young woman who trusted her and the brutal murder of a friend are burdens she has to learn to live with. Tess has come very close to finding the heads of this organized poaching ring, but now she is desperate and feels nearly crushed by guilt over the suffering and even death she has caused. Finally Tess turns her rage and frustration into determination that help her to carry on. Whom can she still trust? The violent showdown occurs during the night of the ‘Blood Moon’ which many believe to be a bad omen. Will it be a good or bad omen for Tess? ‘Blood Moon’ will take you on an adventure trip into the African bush filled with blood and gore but also friendship and love – but you do not need to suffer from the dust, heat and blood sucking insects, it only feels that way.

The author has rated this book PG-13 (questionable content for children under 13).

Excerpt:

Prologue

The dark green shirt is sticking to his muscled back. Despite his size he moves lithely and silent, placing his large feet carefully on the narrow antelope trails that weave through the acacia bush like a spider web. He had been following them for more than an hour. There were three of them. They too are very skilled. Like him they move almost soundlessly through the bush, expertly dodging the thorny branches. They are light-footed, fast, and deadly. The older one carries a rifle. The other two have pangas and spears, probably with poisoned points.

The men stop. He does the same and peers through the dense bush. The older one squats down over a pile of elephant dung, sticks his finger into the centre of one clump. He whispers to his mates: “Still warm, we are very close!” He points towards a clearing to the side of them.

Now he can hear it too: the distinct rumble coming from the belly of an elephant. Slowly he inches forward, using large granite boulders for his cover. A thorn lodges itself in the back of his hand and a dark red drop appears. Carefully he lifts the branch and lets it glide to his side without a sound. Now he can see them too. Three elephant bulls are feeding on the young shoots of the acacias. Like cats the three men creep up closer to the elephants. The larger bull carries substantial tusks. Suddenly he stops feeding and lifts his trunk into the air. Something seems to bother him. Like the long arm of an octopus his trunk swings back and forth as he tests the air for alien scents. His two younger companions carry on selecting fresh juicy branches which they deftly hold with the finger at the end of their trunk. They break them off with a swift jerk and push them into their mouths. The lead bull lets off a warning rumble as he angrily flaps his ears back and forth. Now the young bulls stop feeding and turn their mighty heads exactly into the direction where the three men are hiding.

He ducks down again and slowly crawls forward so that he can see both fronts: the three elephants and the three men. He knows that for him the men pose the far greater danger. His mouth is dry and his tongue feels furry. Sand is crunching between his teeth; drops of sweat leave cool dark stripes on his skin as they run down his temples. His legs ache from the cramped squatting position but he remains crouched close to the ground and keeps his rifle pressed to his chest. Against such an elephant his small calibre was useless.

That is one magnificent bull. I should warn him before they get him. He will attack or he will –

The sound of breaking branches was cutting into his thoughts. Diagonally in front of him he sees a figure running low with a rifle at the ready onto the clearing.

The bull is trumpeting shrilly and with his trunk raised high he attacks the man. The massive, grey body is moving fast with his ears flared out towards the man who seems tiny now. While still running the bull appears to have changed his mind, it looks as if he slows down. Then a shot rings out, followed by a second and third. Both front legs of the bull suddenly buckle and he falls down on his huge head burying his trunk underneath. With an angry teng one last shot completely fells this tall body, that only moments ago was running powerfully across the clearing. Like a colossal granite boulder it falls onto its side. A twitching tremor runs across his back, the trunk curves one last time. Deadly silence hovers over the scene. The elephant lies motionless; reduced to a lifeless, grey mass. A dark blotch quickly gaining in size is spreading from his head into the sand. The younger elephants are still standing at the edge of the clearing, restlessly scraping the dust with their feet, swaying their trunks. The men run towards them screaming and throwing stones. The young bulls turn around and flee.

He closed his eyes, gripped his rifle and wanted to get up as a snapping sound behind him makes his hairs in his neck bristle. He knows this sound. Only too well does he know the sound when the safety catch of a rifle is released. Every single muscle and tendon in his body tenses, ready to strike. He can feel his heart muscle cramp, all his veins and nerves contracting. Within split seconds his brain scans through each and every possibility of escape.

Why did I not notice the fourth man? Why doesn’t he say anything? At least: hands up!

He realises that he had unconsciously already raised his hands. He was still trying to think of what best to say when he felt a blow to his neck and a glaring pain exploded in his head.

He is lying on his back watching the swallows as they dart like arrows through the mild evening air. His mother is calling him. No, that is not her voice. It is a man’s voice. He feels a pain in his side. He wants to wipe the sleep from his eyes but he cannot move his hands. He opens his eyes and sees a pair of dusty, dirty brown trouser legs standing where his feet should have been. One of the trouser legs has a large, frayed hole at the knee. He can clearly make out the dry, scaly skin through that hole. He knows this type of knees. He used to have them too. Rough and cracked skin that has been without protection from the sun, scratched time and again from running through the thorny bushes looking for stray goats. Those knees know the fight for survival, the necessity of speed, cunning and strength. He cannot move his legs. His head is filled with throbbing pain. Slowly he turns it sideways. His arms and legs are spread wide open, tied to short poles that have been rammed into the red brown earth. A gentle wind makes the leaves in the trees at the edge of the clearing rustle. Despite the heat the breeze chills him as it gently sweeps over him. He flinches as he realises that he is completely naked. An ice cold flow rises from his pelvis up his spine, grabbing hold first of his face then his brain. He no longer tries to focus on escape. Now he knows that only a miracle could save him. He also knows that miracles are very rare.

The wind carries the scent of blood, a lot of warm blood. He can feel his stomach convulse. Only a few metres next to his own body he can see the massive, lifeless body of the elephant lying in the sand. Two men are rhythmically swinging their pangas leaving deep red gorges in the leathery skin. They are crudely hacking out the tusks of the bull.

He closes his eyes and tries not to think of anything. Then a cough behind him and a scraping sound make him open his eyes wide. Between his legs a scrawny man is squatting in a T-shirt full of holes that must once have been the colour of honey, but is now filthy and stained with dark spots. On the grey shorts of the man a pocket is halfway torn off. He can see how the man is sharpening his panga. His stomach ties into a hard knot, he can feel sickness rising in his throat. Bitter bile is biting his tongue.

“Hey, who do you work for?” a voice behind him is barking. “Go on we don’t have much time and even less patience!”

He swallows down the bile.

The man between his legs bends forward and swiftly grabs his testicles, lifts them and pulls them tight over the panga. He desperately pulls at the ropes holding down his arms. He distinctly notices the matted brown hair, the sharp onion stink of the man. He feels a sharp stab, lifts his head and stares between his legs as if this could stop the brutal deed.

“Man, I will only ask one more time. If you lie, you are finished!”

Again he pulls at his restraints, barely registers the pain as the rope cuts into his skin.

“I work alone. Was out hunting … only wanted some meat …” he thrusts out the words.

“Cut them off!” the voice orders very evenly.

“No, don’t! Wait!” His shout turns into a dying scream of pain as the panga cuts into his skin. At first he only feels a burning heat between his thighs, but then it hits him with brutal force into his entire being. He believes it is the pain that has robbed him of consciousness until he feels warm drops falling onto his face. He forces himself to open his eyes and sees a hand with cracked skin. Fingers with broken dirty nails are holding a dark brown sack of skin in front of his eyes. His mind refuses to acknowledge what he sees there. The fingers start to squeeze the sack of skin like a sausage and a pinkish something is pushed out. His stomach revolts, he turns his head to the side. Vomit is running down his throat and darkens the red sand.

The voice behind him whispers, “I am giving you one last chance. You are still alive!”

He forces himself to think of something beautiful but the hammering, insane pain drowns out everything else. They would kill him anyway. He can feel drops running down his temples again. Are they tears? Sweat? He doesn’t know. Only briefly the image of his little daughter appears before his eyes, but it vanishes as he feels how a hand grabs his penis. The blade is placed very close to his belly. The rough, torn fingers hold the handle of the panga loosely, almost lightly in the filthy hand. Now the eyes of that man look above his head to the voice behind him. Repulsive, yellowish eyes move close to his face. He senses a tickling in his neck and feels how his sweat and his mind are dripping into the sand. He is sweating even though he feels very cold.

“You pig!” The man between his legs is shouting at him. “You will not piss on me again!”

A searing hot stabbing pain slices from between his legs up his entire body until it burns his mind. He screams his heart out of his body.

“Open your eyes you bastard! I will shut you up!”

A man is holding a thing in his hand. Blood is dripping onto his face. The panga is brutally driven between his lips forcing his mouth open. The thing in his mouth feels warm and soft. He knows that the metallic taste is from his own blood, the thing in his mouth is his own penis. He has to gag; he coughs and gasps for air. The pain between his legs tears his body apart, destroys his mind as his blood continues to flow from his body.

The blotch of blood next to the elephant bull has grown into a thick brown puddle. Flies have gathered on the edges, where the blood mixed with grains of sand has become a trough.

Silently the men disappear into the onset of dusk.

Others will take my place. Later they will know that I did not betray them. For the last time his lips form a smile as he gazes into the beautiful eyes of his daughter

 

1 Return to Kenya

Stop it … just stop it and pull yourself together! Tess quickly wiped away the tears that were trickling down her cheeks and looked resolutely out of the airplane window at the silvery, glistening waters of the Zambezi River below. The river that saved me … the place where I found peace after … don’t … you’ll start crying again! This is a new beginning, a chance to make a name for myself in the photography world. Tom would be thrilled for me. The thought of Tom and his laughing blue eyes, as he had showed her his Africa from that tiny, Flying Doctor’s plane, made her chest ache with loss, as though his death had only been yesterday instead of eight long months ago. It always seems to come back to planes …her fingers slipped into her purse and toyed with the small, yellow piece with the little cartoon airplane Tom had drawn on her cast, after she had broken her ankle on the reef … and here I am on another one plane … this time heading for Nairobi and a new job!

As the plane gained height, Tess sighed and leant back into her seat. The few days in Harare with her sister, Andrea had been relaxing and Tess had enjoyed playing with Andrea’s baby, Klaus, who was over a month old now. Andrea had also given her some reassurance, that she had made the right decision.

She took out the letter from Photo Africa, the tour company that wanted her to guide rich tourists on their photo safaris. It sounded great and the curly signature of her new boss, Raphael Rossini, made her smile. Probably some fat, greasy Italian who kisses all his female clients’ hands! Never mind, I can handle lecherous old men!

In Jim, the manager of the lodge and adjacent game reserve on the Zambezi, she had found a true friend. In his arms the deep pain about the loss of Tom had become more bearable. For Tess, her relationship with Jim was simply based on two lonely people comforting each other. She would always have his image in her mind, in his khaki bush shorts and velskoen shoes, those golden, lion-like eyes, looking at her from under his mop of dark curls. When she had looked back one last time, Jim had been a lonely figure standing at the edge of the bush as she had been driven away to the airstrip. He had been very understanding but she knew that she had hurt him. He would have liked her to stay at his camp on the river, watching the elephants … probably forever.

Tess’ thoughts were interrupted by the smiling flight attendant handing her the usual, little bag of snacks. What a year … finding and losing Tom … Jim and the elephants … and then Mother’s death as well. She was sad at the thought of her mother, such a pale wisp of a woman, always in her father’s shadow, but her death had brought her closer to her father than she had ever been during all those years she had lived at home. Tess was certain that her decision to break free from home and from the expectations her parents had placed on her had been right. She would not have been able or happy to join her father’s business. Tess was not the least interested in the manufacture of industrial machines, even though it was very rewarding financially. And, finally her dad had admitted that her talent lay in photography. She remembered the pride in his face when she had shown him her book. She was a published photo-journalist now … about to embark on the next stage of her career!

All this was in the past, her plane had landed and soon Tess found herself in the colourful chaos of people and baggage at Jomo Kenyatta airport. The difference to Europe was striking her immediately, not because so many people here were black, no; it was the riot of colours that made her strangely feel at home. The main colours at airports or train stations in Northern Europe are grey, black and generally rather dull, but Africans love bright colours and the arrivals hall was sparkling in mighty reds, lemony yellows and lush greens. Giant posters showing Africa’s famous animals, Kenya’s white beaches and marine life gave visitors their first glimpse of the exotic adventures awaiting them. Amongst clusters of African families chatting and laughing at their reunion with returning family members, Tess spotted the sign with Photo Africa in prominent black and gold letters. Underneath was a white label with Ms Steenblock written very correctly. Tess chuckled at the thought of how terribly wrong her name had been spelt at Mombasa airport, when she had landed in Kenya for the very first time, more than a year ago for her first job. She had seen so many variations of her family name from Stonebuck and Stone Black to Steenbuck that she had preferred to be called by her first name, which everybody else had found easier too.

Tess walked up to the young man who held the sign with her name.

“Jambo,” she smiled at him, “I’m Theresa Steenblock.”

“Jambo and Karibu! Welcome to Kenya!” His smile revealed a set of perfect white teeth. Everything about him, from the quality of his khaki coloured suit, to his calm and slightly aloof manner showed that he worked for a first class company.

“My name is Tony Sakanda.” He handed her a card.

She took the card from him and found that his name was Tony Sakanda and he was employed by and ‘licenced to transport passengers’. Tess handed the card back to him.

“You may call me Tony or Mr Sakanda, whichever you prefer, but please bear with me, Ms Steenblock,” he coughed a little, while politely covering his mouth with his left hand. “I’m instructed to check your ID first as well if you don’t mind.” He smiled vaguely. “We must make sure that we transport only our clients. There are some people who like to get a free ride, you know!”

No, she had not known that and she stifled a giggle at his almost military correctness and produced her passport. He studied it briefly. What would he do if I refused? They really do make sure they get it right. Oh dear, I wonder what kind of company I’m going to work for.

Handing it back to her, he said, “Sorry again, Ms Steenblock, but these are our orders.” He walked over to her trolley casting a rather startled eye at her battered suitcase. “May I?” he asked as he placed the Photo Africa sign on top of her old suitcase and then started to make his way towards the exit. “Did you have a pleasant flight?”

“Oh, yes, Tony, thank you,” I will definitely call you Tony … perhaps that will loosen you up a bit! They even train them to ask the correct questions. Tess felt a little uneasy as she walked beside him. She had been so used to the relaxed and slightly chaotic way in which most things worked in Africa, that this efficiency and precision unnerved her.

They approached a shiny limousine parked outside in a reserved place near the exit. Tony deftly opened the door of the back seat for her and stepped aside so she could climb in.

“Would you mind if I sit up front?” She asked him.

“Of course not!” Tony replied but could not completely hide his surprise. Tony looked rather disconcerted, but shut the back door, stiffly made three steps backwards and opened the front door for her. Tess noticed how he looked straight ahead as she swung her legs inside. He has been instructed not to stare at women’s legs! Tess chuckled and brushed a strand of her blonde hair back from her face. Her hair was fairly straight and came down to her shoulders. She combed it down with her fingers, thinking that she would definitely have to tidy herself up before meeting Mr Rossini! Tony had swiftly stowed away her suitcase and now climbed into the driver’s seat. He buckled up and started the engine.

“Would you please fasten your seatbelt, Ms Steenblock. Sorry, but those are the company rules.” Tony gave her another of his well measured smiles. Tess fastened her seatbelt, feeling another quick flash of irritation at herself for forgetting, and at Tony for his officiousness.

They drove fast down the expressway to the city. On either side, the grass on the plains was yellow, interspersed with the occasional acacia tree, its wide umbrella-shaped canopy providing shade from the hot sun for its roots. Tess opened her window and deeply inhaled the fresh air … what a relief after hours of recycled air on the plane. She could already make out the high rises of Nairobi’s skyline when Tony turned off the express way and she heard the clicking sound of the central locking. The ride became a little bumpy on this smaller, pot-hole-riddled road.

“They are working on the Uhuru expressway. I’m taking a shortcut here, to save time. I wouldn’t drive through here with clients, but I heard you are going to work with us, so I hope you don’t mind.” Tony explained while he skilfully steered the car around the large potholes in the road.

Clusters of crudely built shacks appeared, which all looked like they had been constructed in a hurry from whatever the builders had found. Some had corrugated iron roofs; others had slabs of timber to keep out the weather. Tess saw some dwellings covered with grey tarpaulins, all looking fairly new. She recognised the UNHCR logo of two hands forming a shelter over a tiny person, framed by a circle of white leaves. Somehow these tarpaulins, donated by the United Nations for the construction of shelters for refugees had found their way into the slums of Nairobi where they were just as much needed. Many of the people living here had fled the war in Somalia years ago, the majority however, were refugees fleeing poverty in their own country. What a sad sight, especially with the UN-Habitat headquarters right here in Nairobi.

Tess shook her head. Many times before she had been exposed to this alarming contrast between sophistication and poverty in Africa, but it never failed to shock her that people had to live in such squalor so close to the glassy sky-scrapers and mansions of the ultra-rich. She had read about the gangs operating within the slums, controlling the access to water. The municipality provided water points at fairly regular intervals, but you could not just walk up and fill your jerry cans with water. You had to pay the local gang ‘owning’ this particular water point. A cruel system of bribes, threats and violence reigned here. Those who did not comply were beaten and even murdered at times. Tess shuddered at the thought as she watched small, half naked children play amongst the rubbish and chase off bony dogs.

“No, I don’t mind. I’ve seen the slums before, but I always find it depressing.”

The people living here used anything to create a bit of privacy and a sense of home in these overcrowded quarters of poverty, despair and violence. Abruptly the street scape changed as they entered the centre of the city. Only a few blocks away from the slums, but already the world seemed to be a better place. No more potholes had to be dogged, and instead of rubbish, trees and flowers lined the wide streets in an orderly fashion.

Tony pulled into a car park next to a very tall, modern office building. Photo Africa was located on the ground floor and the reception was dominated by posters of wildlife and luxurious beach resorts such as she had seen in the arrivals hall at the airport. The very blonde and full bosomed receptionist smiled enthusiastically at Tess as if she were Santa Claus arriving with a special gift.

She introduced herself as Belinda. The smile became a little less glowing after Tess had introduced herself. She bent over the intercom to announce her.

“Mr Rossini is awaiting you.”

Now she turned to Tony. “Would you please show Ms Steenblock to Mr Rossini’s office?” She tossed back her perfectly styled curls and looked challengingly at him.

Those two did not like each other much, so much was obvious. Tony took her through to Mr Rossini’s office, knocked briefly, and then opened the door without waiting for an answer. As he silently closed the door behind her, Tess quickly scanned the room. It was tastefully furnished with exquisite African teak furniture. Two and three seater couches, with cushions in African wildlife patterns around a coffee table, invited the clients to relax. Oil paintings of the Kenyan bush and mountains added to the atmosphere of ‘here-you-are-in-the-hands-of-people-who-know-Africa’ and we will help you to appreciate the best of it, at a price!

A door in the teak-panelled wall that Tess had not noticed before opened and her future employer made his appearance. Raphael Rossini looked to be in his late thirties, very tall and dressed in a pale grey suit, which hung expensively from broad shoulders.

“Theresa Steenblock, welcome to Kenya! Please do sit down.”

His eyes were very dark and he had a smile that would make most women go a little weak at the knees. He came forward and clasped her hand, holding it slightly longer than was necessary and smiling down at her. Tess realized that Rossini was examining her as frankly as she had been staring at him!

She could feel her face blush and looked down, angry at herself for behaving like a schoolgirl. “Thank you, Mr Rossini.” She sat down in one of the soft armchairs.

“Did you have a pleasant journey, Theresa? I may call you Theresa, yes?”

“Please call me Tess.” Her voice sounded too loud and nervous.

“Tess? No, no … Theresa sounds so much nicer, more feminine. And please call me Rafe. Can I get you something to drink? Tea, coffee or juice perhaps?

“Thanks … ehm … tea would be nice.” Tess was annoyed at herself for meekly submitting to his decision how he would call her.

The phone rang and he crossed the room with long-legged, easy movements as he walked over to his desk to answer it. He perched on the edge, talking to someone in rapid Italian, all the while letting his eyes wander over her. Tess hastily looked away and noticed a photograph on his desk. It showed a smiling boy of about seven snuggling close to an older very beautiful woman. The resemblance between the two was striking and she thought it rather nice of him to have a photograph of his mother on his desk. Rafe was now talking to Belinda over the intercom, ordering the tea and instructing her not to put any calls through for the next half hour.

“Now we can have a quiet chat. As I had mentioned in my email a friend from the Kenya Wildlife Service has asked me for a photographer to accompany one of their security teams on a routine patrol in the bush. Like an embedded photographer if you want. These teams protect the wildlife and their habitat as well as providing security for the tourists. Can you do that? We still have a week before you would start on your first tour for us.”

“Not a problem. I have done something like this before.” She knew that Rafe Rossini had organized a small job for her with the KWS, so that he could see how good her work was and how she would cope with the harsh conditions in the bush, before offering her a binding contract.

He nodded. “I know.”

Over tea Rafe Rossini gave Tess a brief run down on the company, Photo Africa. He also explained what was expected of her. Basically, her work was to be there for the clients at all times, during a tour. She would assist them in using their high-quality camera equipment, set up memorable shots, getting them as close to the animals as was safely possible, to produce unforgettable photos without actually taking the camera out of their hands! The rest of her job would consist in taking care of the little day to day problems, soothing any ruffled feathers and generally making sure that the clients had a wonderful African experience without any of the African problems.

“We attract a very diverse range of clients, from those who have a real interest in wildlife and knowledge of photography, to those who have too much money and just want to boast about their dangerous safari in wild Africa! I hope you are prepared to deal with some … shall we say … rather indulged people. They are paying a lot for this experience and want their money’s worth!” Rafe Rossini smiled at her. “I have the feeling that you are the right person for this job, Theresa. You come highly recommended.”

Later, Tony drove her to the Boulevard Hotel where she had a quiet room facing the garden that bordered the Nairobi River. The sound of the gushing water drowned out the traffic noise from the nearby Uhuru expressway.

Tess was looking forward to another job in the bush and she did not mind that Rafe Rossini had practically lent her to the Kenya Wildlife Service or KWS. Her work for the KWS would consist in travelling with a security team for a few days and document their work with striking photographs. The idea was to show tourists how the KWS used the park entry fees to curb poaching and to protect the wildlife. She knew what lay ahead and remembered only too well the strain of long foot safaris, the insects, the heat and at the end the gruesome proof they had found in a poachers’ camp. That had been over a year ago when she had gone on patrol with such a team in the North of Kenya.

 

2 Back in the Bush

Before sunrise a game warden from the KWS collected her the next morning.

Copyright© Kara Benson. All rights reserved.

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Kara Benson
By Kara Benson April 8, 2014 09:39
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